Why I changed my mind about Omar Khadr

Scott Gilmore on the ancient ritual of the scapegoat

Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

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In the 19th century, there was a tribe that lived along the Niger River. When their king saw his people were frightened by an invisible evil, such as a plague, he would send men into the interior to purchase and deliver to him a “sickly person.” This poor soul was dragged face downwards from the king’s house on a height, down some distance to the river’s edge. The townspeople followed, taunting the victim and crying, “Wickedness! Wickedness!” Then they drowned him in the river. As soon as their sacrifice stopped struggling, the people would cheer, as they believed their terrors died with him.

This spectacle was not unique. In Thailand, people would choose a “debauched woman” to throw over the city walls. In the Caucasus, a slave was paraded through town, then stabbed in the heart with a spear. Leviticus records the ancient Jews would carefully anoint a goat and set him loose in the desert to die. All these rituals had the same purpose: to ward off an undefined evil.

The ceremony of the scapegoat is deeply woven into the history of every culture. It is an elemental part of humanity: the need to make an invisible threat tangible, then to destroy it. This ritual survives today—less dramatic, but just as tribal, emotional and irrational.

Related: Omar Khadr bail decision delayed until Thursday

I don’t remember when I first saw the name Omar Khadr. As a Canadian diplomat tracking South Asia, I knew of his father and remembered prime minister Jean Chrétien clumsily assuring the Pakistani government that he posed no threat. Later, after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Khadr name returned to me in intelligence briefings. There weren’t many Canadians running around with al-Qaeda, so, naturally, attention was paid.

In 2002, when U.S. Special Forces captured the 15-year-old, I vividly recall the feeling of justice being served. There were some grumblings about his age, and that he was a child soldier. But this was easy to dismiss as the mewling of the weak-kneed left, unwilling to stomach the hard reality of this new war on terror.

When I first saw a photo of Omar Khadr, it raised a small doubt in my mind. This was obviously a child; surely, he couldn’t be such a serious threat? But I pushed the thought away, which was easy to do, given his mother’s regular outbursts of hate. I would privately tell journalists they couldn’t see the bigger picture. I hinted that the classified reports on Khadr painted an unambiguous picture. He and his family were evil. As the boy was dragged through the media and into Guantánamo, I walked behind and whispered “Wickedness. Wickedness.”

After the Conservatives were elected, they treated Khadr with the same disdain as their predecessors. Liberals such as Irwin Cotler did gnaw at my conscience, when they raised questions about the lack of due process. But my biases overcame my doubt and I breezily dismissed them as hypocrites.

The years passed. We watched as Khadr grew up in detention, buffeted by the pseudo-judicial circus of American military tribunals, then punished by the Canadian government with increasingly petty bureaucratic and legal gambits. At some point, I noticed there were fewer voices baying for his blood, and I, too, stopped defending his imprisonment.

Time grinds down even our most self-righteous beliefs. Ironically, the more I travelled and worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the less I saw terrorism as an intangible and existential threat. It was real enough, and recognizable. And it was not Omar Khadr.

Regular opinion polls over the last decade suggest the majority of Canadians disagree with me. Like the Conservative party, they do not see Khadr as a boy whose childhood was stolen by his father, and punished beyond all balance as a symbol of a wider evil. They see the very embodiment of terrorism, a fanatical killer, throwing grenades at medics.

I could argue the facts. I could point out we violated a treaty on child soldiers that Canada itself helped to draft. I could explain in detail all the different ways Khadr was denied due process by the American and Canadian governments. I could give you all the legal rulings, even from the Supreme Court itself, that side repeatedly with Khadr. I could share data on his extremely low likelihood of recidivism. I could detail the conflicting testimony that casts doubt on whether Khadr even threw that grenade.

But, for many of those who agree with the government’s effort to obtain an emergency stay of an Alberta judge’s decision to grant Khadr bail, none of that matters. The ritual of the scapegoat is not rational. It comes from the deepest part of our brain that is filled with an undefined dread at the pervasive threat of terror, and demands blood.

The next time a Conservative politician stands up in Parliament, shouting and gesticulating as he thunders in righteous fury at the evil that is Omar Khadr, watch closely. And recall anthropologist Sir James Frazer’s description of shamans as they prepared their scapegoat for sacrifice by “beating the empty air and raising such a hubbub as may scare the mischievous spirits and put them to flight.”


Why I changed my mind about Omar Khadr

  1. I am stunned at this article. I have followed the story of Omar Khadr from the beginning baffled at the relentless vindictiveness directed toward him. It is the principle reason for my profound contempt for Stephen Harper and the CPC. Their dogged persecution of this young man has been painful to witness. I have never understood it until now. “The ceremony of the scapegoat is deeply woven into the history of every culture. It is an elemental part of humanity: the need to make an invisible threat tangible, then to destroy it. This ritual survives today—less dramatic, but just as tribal, emotional and irrational.” Thank you Scott Gilmore for your thoughtful analysis of this ignoble episode and for your ability to uncover its atavistic origins. Brilliant.

    • “It is the principle reason for my profound contempt for Stephen Harper and the CPC.”

      The myopia of those who somehow think what’s happened to him is “unjust” is the principle reason for mine of them. When Khadr is finally released no later than this fall, he will have been incarcerated for just over 13 years for killing a US medic and for participating directly and indirectly in acts of terrorism. That would be about average for your garden variety murderer/violent offender here in Canada. Yet we’re scapegoating the poor lad?

      Was he a callow youth when he committed his acts? Certainly. Would that have made a difference had he committed the exact same acts at the exact same age in Canada? Not a chance. Was he influenced by his family? Undoubtedly, but for reasons obvious to thinking persons, “my family made me do it” is not yet a complete criminal defense.

      I actually am fine with his imminent release because the length of his sentence by that point can be seen as “just”. Given his legion of defenders has never offered up a scintilla of evidence he has renounced the jihadi impulses his family did its best to imbue him with, I’m also fine with monitoring him 24/7 indefinitely until it is clear he has.

      • PS – does the fact Khadr spent his first 4 years of incarceration under Chretien and Martin and has his tenure at Gitmo indefinitely extended by Obama temper your contempt for Harper? Didn’t think so.

        • Harp has been PM for 10 years.

          Is anything EVER going to be his fault?

        • I completely agree with all your points. Chretien is never held accountable. He took us into Afghanistan and he phoned Bush and offered help with Iraq. He started off the Khadr incarceration but Emily points to him as an example of a statesman when he cozies up to Vlad Putin at a recent off the record meeting.

          • LOL none of that is true…..put the weed down.

        • No. All three Chretien, Martin, Obama did they same thing that Harper is doing now. Used a Omar for their own political gain. Like Scott said, they use him as an object for which we could alleviate our fear. Punch and Judy show. As for Omar, in his talk with the psychologist while in prison, he want to lead a normal life. His ideology has not change which by that I guess he is referring to the Muslim religion but has developed.

      • Sure he was a medic. He may also have been a fly fisherman, amateur gymnast, and the founder of the Hair Club for Men.
        However, the only only thing particularly relevant to the the case at hand is that he was a special forces commando engaged in combat.
        Nor does the ‘average’ sentence in Canada come as a result of torture, withheld evidence and a coherenced confession.

        • “However, the only only thing particularly relevant to the the case at hand is that he was a special forces commando engaged in combat.”

          Actually, the only thing particularly relevant to the case at hand is that he’s dead because Khadr killed him.

          • …killed him, in cobat, you meant to say.

          • It’s not actually clear that Khadr did kill him. Certainly the evidence suppressed by the prosecution suggests otherwise.
            Regardless, why did you describe him as a “medic”?

          • “The government manufactured evidence to make it look like Omar was guilty,” Khadr’s military lawyer, U.S. Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler told reporters after a pre-trial hearing.
            He went on to say the government did so “to reflect the reality that was most convenient to the United States government at that time.”
            The tribunal heard that in one official report dated July 28, 2002, the commander “Lieut. Col. W” wrote that the person who threw the grenade at Sgt. Christopher Speer had died, which would rule out Khadr as the suspect.
            Yet, in a near-identical report written two months later, but also dated July 28, the commander changed a single line to read the grenade thrower did not die.

          • Killed in “combat” when the US army attacked a civilian compound – but apart from that, we were told that the unit leader / “medic” was killed by a grenade. Where did that grenade originate? What kind of grenade was it? Did the people inside that compound all have grenades? Where did they get them? I read that it is the practice of the US military when “clearing” compounds to request civilians to leave and then lob the place with grenades. Did someone inside that particular compound toss one of those back outside? Did a soldier on one side of the compound toss too far or too short of the mark and cause a friendly fire incident? So many questions and no answers except to blame everything on a badly injured kid who was the only survivor inside the compound.

        • It’s clear he’s dead. That means Khadr or a member of the terrorist cohort Khadr belonged to and who came out guns a blazing instead of surrendering when asked (by an Afghani, BTW) killed him. Either way, he’s got nothing to complain about regarding his sentence. He’d have nothing to complain about regarding his sentence if he was a thousand miles away when Sgt. Speer expired, given his substantial involvement – caught on tape! – in preparing explosives and other jihadi accouterments.

          As for his killing of Sgt. Speer “in cobat (sp)” somehow being a mitigating factor in sentencing, I doubt Mr. Khadr would prefer the usual thing that happens when you are found by enemy combatants shortly after dispatching their buddy.

          • Ah no, the tape shows he present whileothers assemble and set explosives.
            And I’m pretty sure that in this country any child in his father’s care present for any of the events you describe wouldn’t be thankful after being tortured, tried in a a kangaroo court and locked up for years – he’d be removed from his father and put in the custody of Child and Family Services.

      • Was he a callow youth when he committed his acts? Certainly. Would that have made a difference had he committed the exact same acts at the exact same age in Canada?

        Yes it would have. For one thing, he may have actually had a fair trial. For another thing, he would have presumably been subject to the YJCA. And then there’s the whole child soldier thing.

        Had he been convicted (not a certainty, from all I’ve read) his sentence would likely have been shorter than the time served to date.

        • So what would have been the result of the fair trial he would have received here, based on evidence that he tossed a grenade, following which a guy was dead? Even one held in accordance with the YJCA, which condones adult trials and adult sentences in especially egregious circumstances, like when the accused is part of a terrorist group?

          • Except that there’s evidence that he didn’t throw a grenade.
            And we don’t put children on trial for their parents crimes – we put them in the custody of Child and Family services.

          • Well, in one of the other pieces here during Khadr week at Macleans, he said he did throw it. But if you think he’s lying about that, more power to you – perhaps the exploding grenade was a figment of everyone’s imagination and Sgt. Speer actually an apparition.

          • I think we’re all aware he “confessed” after being indefinitely detained and tortured. Did he do a Maclean’s interview I’m not aware of?

  2. It’s very gratifying to have someone like yourself use the word “scapegoat” in respect of Omar Khadr: I’ve been doing it for years, but never explaining it as well as you have. Hopefully this article will help to change some very stubborn minds in this country, including Stephen Harper’s.

  3. Ya know what would be nice? If omar’s actual accusers would come to Canada & explain it to us, (just the pricks that were in the actual firefight). American Human life has no value. 22 of their vets daily check-out. My thots here lean to guilt & remorse of crimes committed whilst deluded.
    It would be nice to hear the unabridged thots of those who were there, before they suicide too.

  4. A kid, wounded and under fire in a War Zone, a War Zone ! tosses a grenade at some
    guys trying to kill him. Clearly a war crime. Yes.

    • Yeah, that’s what always got ME….it was a war zone!

  5. Okay, I am being cruel. It is obvious that Americans frighten easily, and one should try not to laugh, (at least until they leave.) But if they are going to call everything that scares them terrorism, … c,mon, ..a rowboat against a battleship, ..what? ..that’s not funny? …it scared trained killers with superior technology? (sigh) … okay, a 4 year old with a dinner fork is a terrorist, ..i get that, .. , but my dyson is a superior vacuuming device, .. Sir Richard isn,t on the list …is he?

  6. Let’s give Khadr the trial he should have gotten in Guantanamo. Let’s hear the evidence against him and have it tried in court. Even under the charges and specifications against him, however, it would be impossible to determine under which Canadian laws, or international covenants he should be tried.

    After all, the US legislature had to pass special legislation under which to charge him. Legislation that even they admit wouldn’t stand up in any American civil court.

    Spend the money, or let him go.

    • At this point, the only possible reason to re-try him would be if he requested it in order to clear his name. We aren’t likely to give him a longer sentence than he has already served (or would serve by the time the trial was heard). Putting him through yet another trial against his will would amount to (more) cruel and unusual punishment

  7. Intelligent, logical, reasoned, sensible… This column reflects an evolving human being.

    We can all learn from it.

  8. Here’s a fun exercise! Let’s compare and contrast Mr. Khadr with that another famous misguided Islamist youth, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Teenager at the time of offense? Check. Significant family influence? Check. Strong, though not incontrovertible evidence he actually did it? Check. Not particularly inclined to show a scintilla of remorse? Check.

    Mr. Tsarnaev is likely to depart the mortal coil around the time Mr. Khadr is currently scheduled to become a free man. This does not appear to temper the righteous indignation of Mr. Khadr’s sycophants.

    • Anyone else you want to bring into this?

      Sirhan Sirhan?


      The Easter Bunny?

    • Dzhokhar Tsarnaev acted at a joyful Boston Marathon, killing innocent civilians. Mr. Khadr was in a terrifying war zone.

      • Well, lucky for Omar the Afghanistan he and his mates were based in was so joyless – it apparently is a mitigating factor. Good thing too that the carnage from those IEDs he was diligently assembling in that video was wholly experienced by the guilty.

        • ” those IEDs he was diligently assembling in that video”

          Except that the video shows no such thing.
          Let me guess, you’ve “informed” by Ezra Levant?

          • You must have seen the edited version. Let me guess, you’re “informed” by Noam Chomsky?

          • To Greatwallsoffire: Actually, until informed by Noam Chomsky I didn’t realize that the US was not in Afghanistan legally in the first place. That means that shooting back at attacking Americans was not illegal. That’s why Khadr wasn’t tried in a real American court because they would have dismissed it right away. The tribunals in Gitmo were created to be outside the US justice system because Gitmo doesn’t have much to do with justice.

        • I’m not sure why anyone bothers to debate your “points”. Your mind is so obviously closed it’s a complete waste of time. Just for the helluvit though – if he wins his appeal in the U.S. would you consider the idea that yolur assumptions of him might be wrong?

          • What assumptions are you referring to? That he was present when a group of terrorists got in a fire fight with US and Afghan personnel all of whom were killed but him and after the fight ended and all his companions were dead, someone threw a grenade and killed a US guy? How will this assumption be proven wrong – Sgt. Speer is going to come back to life?

          • “after the fight ended and all his companions were dead, someone threw a grenade and killed a US guy?”

            That’s patently false.

    • Anyone can be made to become terrorist. Have you not seen Homeland? An even better comparison would be the IRA.

    • Well, you can compare apples & oranges if you like, but it still doesn’t make them the same.

    • Really? You’re right it is an appropriate exercise – I don’t know about “fun”!

      Omar Khadr was taken to Afganistan at the age of 10, where he remained (obviously) under the direct control & influence of his father – a known Islamic militant.

      Dzohokar Tsarnaev moved with his family to the US at the age of 8 where he grew up & went to school & lived an apparently entirely “normal” life.

      Khadr, at the age of 15 – legally a minor – was involved in a firefight with US forces, in a war zone in which he was wounded & during which a US soldier was killed, possibly by a grenade thrown by Khadr. Kadhr was then carried off to Guantanamo where he was held without trial for years & then tried, in secret, by a military tribunal outside the normal rule of law. The evidence presented was contradictory, leading to significant doubt about his actual participation in the killing of the US soldier.

      Tsarnaev was involved, as a 19 year old – legally an adult – in planting two bombs which killed & maimed spectators at a peaceful, international sporting event in the US & then engaging in a firefight/bombing with police officers in which a police officer was killed. He received all the legal rights accorded to a US citizen, an open trial, fully covered by the international media & was convicted based on overwhelming evidence.

      Do you really not see the difference?

  9. Several people here have asserted that, in 1995, Chretien made a mistake, and convinced Pakistan to release Omar Khadr’s father, in spite of genuine evidence that Ahmed Said Khadr had ties to terrorism.

    Sorry, although this is widely repeated, it is incorrect. Pakistan had held Khadr’s father, for almost a year — without laying any charges. Even if, for the sake of argument, he wasn’t being held in a torture prison, months of detention without charge was inconsistent with the requirements of fundamental justice.

    I believe Chretien’s own account, that, after Mrs Khadr buttonholed him, he raised Ahmed Said Khadr’s detention with the Pakistani PM, and requested that Pakistan EITHER charge him, and give him a fair trial — OR let him go.

    This was what Canada should do for ANY Canadian. The Canadian government is supposed to do its best to make sure all Canadian citizens get a fair trial when they are suspected of committing a crime by a foreign country.

    So, why didn’t Pakistan take the other choice, and charge Ahmed Said Khadr with a crime? I think we should assume it was because, even though they had ten months to look for it, they couldn’t find any evidence he committed a crime.

    I think Chretien is in the clear.

  10. Scott – I do not care what you choose to believe – however this man was raised as a staunch isl@mic.

    When he reached puberty he became a man in the eyes of isl@m – giving him all the rights and privileges of a man in that society.

    You can be sure he was thought of as a man by his family, by his culture and he considered himself a man as he was raised in a house that truly hates Canada and all it stands for.

    The apple does not fall far from the tree – there will be more to this person as time goes by – and I predict none of it will be good.

    I stand ready to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from the entitled of Canada.

    • If “the entitled of Canada” means people who can read & thoughtfully analyze what they read well then yes, you appear to deserve whatever “slings and arrows” are sent your way.

    • Fortunately, “the apple does not fall far from the tree” is not one of the guiding principles of our justice system.

  11. Thank you Scott, once again, a very convincing column. I appreciate your contributions to Macleans!

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