It has been more than eight years since U.S. forces captured Omar Khadr, only 15 years old at the time, following a fierce firefight in a remote Afghan village. Khadr’s trial by an American military tribunal is now underway and is attracting a high level of media attention for several reasons.
First off, Toronto-born Khadr is the only Western prisoner still being held in the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba. Others such as David Hicks from Australia and Richard Belmar, one of nine British detainees returned to the U.K., have been handed over to authorities in their respective countries. Despite repeated urging from Khadr’s original U.S. military defence counsel, the Canadian government has refused to demand that he be released from U.S. custody to face prosecution in Canada. Khadr’s lawyers have insisted that their client cannot receive a fair trial under the American military tribunal system.
The questionable legality of holding “enemy combatants” indefinitely is another reason the Khadr case is receiving so much attention. One of Barack Obama’s first actions upon obtaining office was to order the closure of the Guantanamo Bay facility. It had long been seen as a symbol of the Bush administration’s heavy-handed approach to addressing security threats using the catch-all authority they had granted themselves under the “war against terror” banner.
The third noteworthy component of Khadr’s trial is the young age at which he was initially apprehended. Technically a “boy soldier” of 15, this is the first case of a youth being prosecuted for a war crime.
Often lost in the emotional debate over whether Khadr should be returned to Canada to stand trial is the question of whether Khadr was operating as an illegal enemy combatant or an international terrorist, and at what age should an accused be accountable for such alleged crimes in the circumstances Khadr faced. While no one is denying that Khadr accompanied his brother and father to Afghanistan to combat U.S. forces in 2002, it is difficult to envision how that can be considered an act of terrorism.
When U.S. troops entered their village equipped with sophisticated modern weapon systems, young Omar Khadr and his three fellow fighters engaged them with conventional weapons. In the one-sided firefight that ensued, Khadr’s colleagues were all killed and Omar himself received a wound so large that, according to one American eyewitness, “one could fit a can of Copenhagen (chewing tobacco) inside his chest.” As one of the few survivors of that skirmish, Khadr was accused of throwing a hand grenade resulting in the death of U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer.
The prosecution in this trial admit that they have no eyewitness that will confirm seeing Khadr throw the grenade but even if convicted of the charge, I cannot understand how that would constitute an act of “terror.” All soldiers understand that combat is a life and death struggle defined by the axiom “kill or be killed.” You cannot terrorize a soldier in a firefight — particularly one in which you are outgunned and losing, as was the case when Khadr allegedly threw a grenade. Terrorism is the wanton act of indiscriminate violence against defenceless civilians, by its definition, for the sake of spreading fear and panic.
This was certainly exemplified by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and similarly by the U.S. air force’s “shock and awe” terror bombing of Iraqi cities. If committing an act of terror is indeed a crime against humanity then we must bring all of its purveyors to justice.
As it stands now, U.S. authorities are apparently so bent on maintaining their monopoly on the right to wage terror against their perceived enemies that every threat raised against them is labelled an act of terror. Richard Reid’s failed attempt to detonate an explosive device in his shoe aboard an aircraft and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s crotch fire mishap in his failed attempt to down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 were both labelled as “acts of terror.” Prior to 9/11 they would have been regarded as acts of public mischief or attempted assault, but all perspective has long since been altered. Now are we to believe that a frightened, badly wounded 15-year-old, whose brother and father had just been killed, committed an “act of terrorism” if he threw a hand grenade at his heavily armed U.S. Special Forces attackers?
Canada has laws prohibiting our citizens from participating as belligerents in wars against friendly foreign states. In taking up arms against Americans in Afghanistan, Khadr is certainly guilty of such an offence. For that he should be punished to the full extent of the law.
But let’s not apply a double standard here. Canada did not join George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, yet Canadian citizens volunteered to fight with the U.S. forces in that war. They deserve as much of our ire as Omar Khadr.