The Supreme Court of Canada. Photo by Alex Guibord.
From the American perspective, Omar Khadr’s release breaches an undertaking the Canadian government made to us.
Ottawa was never truly in a position to honor that agreement, however, because Canada has an independent judiciary that tells the government what the law is, not the other way around. This is an arrangement we respect, even when we are displeased with the results.
Once the youngest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Khadr pleaded guilty at a 2010 military commission to war crimes, including throwing the grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer. He was captured by American soldiers and held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years prior to his conviction; after, as part of his plea deal, he was returned to Canada to serve the remainder of his eight-year sentence.
Though he is only really on bail at the moment, most observers in Canada seem to think Khadr will not be incarcerated again. And although the American government’s reaction has been low-key, allowing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to take the lead, some Americans surely feel outraged, both at Khadr’s release and at Canada’s perceived double-cross.
Retired U.S. Sgt. Layne Morris, who lost sight in one eye during the firefight in which Khadr was involved, told the Deseret News he worried about Khadr’s release. “This is a man who has demonstrated a willingness and a capability to do great harm to Canadian society and Western interests in general,” Morris said. Some other Americans doubtless feel the same wariness and frustration.
This is understandable, but it isn’t rational.
The day he threw that grenade, Khadr was 15 years old. He couldn’t legally enlist in the military of his native Canada. He couldn’t buy beer or cigarettes, in Canada or the U.S. He couldn’t have entered into a contract to buy a car.
And, unlike Western teenagers who were coaxed into running off on their own to fight alongside terrorists, Khadr ended up in Afghanistan because his own parents brought him to that part of the world. Defense attorneys described Khadr as a child soldier, pushed into the conflict at the insistence of his father, allegedly a senior al-Qaida financer. Once Khadr was embedded with his father’s allies, we can assume he was told over and over that Americans were out to kill Muslims in general and him in particular.
Further, the Americans at whom he tossed the grenade were armed soldiers in uniform, not civilians like those who, for example, had gathered in 2013 to watch the Boston Marathon. Had Khadr been a real soldier, fighting in a real, declared war, what he did would not remotely be considered a war crime.
Yet he spent 10 years in Guantanamo Bay before being tried in an extrajudicial proceeding, at which he was sentenced to eight more years of confinement.
Sure, it would have been great had Khadr run away from his family and sought the protection of Canadian authorities before his father took him to Afghanistan in 1996. That’s asking a lot of a 9-year-old, however. We’d like to think, too, that seeing the American soldiers, Khadr might have tossed away his weapons and run to them for protection - though had an American soldier responded by shooting him, it would have almost surely been seen as a simple act of self-defense.
Upon his capture, Khadr should have received mercy and rehabilitation, including repatriation to his native Canada. Many Canadians and, in fact, most of the rest of the civilized world, can readily see this. But because the American viewpoint is understandably distorted by the costs and causes of our incursion into Afghanistan, it is much harder for many of us to say the same.
While Khadr’s transfer wasn’t perfectly handled, the bottom line is that Canadian courts are coming to a result that can reasonably be viewed as just and fair. Canadians are ultimately taking responsibility for one of their own.
Canada is a great friend and neighbor, and Canadians have stood with America through many trials, over many decades. We ought to at least be gracious enough to grant them the last word on Omar Khadr.