This Review was published in the April 2012 Issue
Either Omar Khadr has certain basic rights or no Canadian does. Which is it?
Before it was over, the Cold War did teach us a few lessons. Certainly it was important to stand up for principles of freedom and human dignity and see these through to eventual vindication. But there were more troubling lessons as well. The darkness of the deeds of the other side—mass murder, gulags, stultifying oppression—did not magically cleanse our side of moral responsibility for the means we employed to defend ourselves. That the other side was black did not automatically make us white. As human beings we were shades of grey.
Another lesson learned early in the Cold War was that confronting an antagonist abroad by hunting down an alleged fifth column of traitors within is deeply divisive and destructive of the very fabric of liberal democracy. This lesson was called McCarthyism: by the late 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy, once a hero of the Cold Warriors, morphed into an enduring blot on the face of American democracy.
September 11 re-created the conditions of the Cold War, Islamist terrorists replacing communists. Of course, people who plan and execute mass murder of innocents in the name of God must be confronted and defeated. But in the renewed face of evil, the old Cold War lessons were quickly forgotten. When U.S. president George W. Bush declared “you’re either with us or with the terrorists,” the full moral confusion was reconstituted. Worse were Vice-President Dick Cheney’s ruminations about America working through “the dark side”: “it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” “Any means” has meant Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, extraordinary rendition, warrantless surveillance, targeted assassinations, drone attacks, etc. And once again there is an enemy within, witches for the burning, this time a minority community identified by religion rather than political ideology: Muslims equated with Islamists equated with terrorists.
All this is background to explaining the appearance of Canada’s premier right-wing polemicist Ezra Levant’s latest right-wing polemic, The Enemy Within: Terror, Lies and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr. Ten years on into the war on terror, after the killing of Osama bin Laden, after the expenditure of billions of dollars on counterterrorism and absent any further attacks on North America, Levant is on a crusade (word chosen carefully) to alert a slumbering nation to the grave and imminent danger posed by a monstrous and evil “enemy within” that could threaten our very lives and everything we hold dear.
Levant has chosen a singularly curious dragon for the slaying: Omar Khadr, a Canadian boy taken to Pakistan and Afghanistan by a virulently jihadist father at an early age; brought up to be a sacrificial martyr for a crazed version of Islam; captured as a 15-year-old teenager close to death by American forces following a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002; charged with killing an American soldier during that firefight; then held as an “unlawful enemy combatant” at the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison camp for the past decade, where he remains today pending his transfer to Canada, as per an agreement between the Canadian and American governments.
Canadian opinion about the Khadr case has long been divided. The Harper government steadfastly resisted calls for Khadr’s repatriation, even in the face of judicial reviews supporting that action, at least until the final deal was concluded. In this they could be confident of the support of a substantial body of opinion, especially in their own core voting base. Opposed to this mass opinion, crucial sectors of elite opinion—much of the legal profession, the Canadian Bar Association, civil liberties groups, editorial opinion in major newspapers, the federal opposition parties that until 2011 together constituted a majority in Parliament—stressed Khadr’s status as a child soldier protected under international protocols to which Canada is a signatory. They called for Canada to do what Britain, Australia and other western countries had done in securing the return of their nationals from a prison of dubious legality where, by the Americans’ own admission, torture was practised on inmates; and they questioned the validity of Khadr’s conviction by a military court with few of the due process safeguards prevailing in civil courts.
Levant’s Khadr all his life has been aspiring to “greater, more murderous criminal heights.”
Most of those opposed to Khadr’s repatriation appear to have taken their cues from a general dislike of the Khadr terrorist family, spurred by the notorious interview given to CBC television by Khadr’s mother and sister when, only their eyes visible through black niqabs, they spewed out venom about the West and contempt for Canada—hardly helpful PR on behalf of young Omar. Yet few, even of those impatient with the legal arguments of those defending Khadr’s constitutional and human rights despite his family’s unlovely record, are likely to have seen an Omar repatriated to a Canadian prison, or even a Khadr ultimately released into Canadian society, as a dire threat to national security, a personal menace to the safety of innocent Canadians in their daily lives. But that is exactly how Levant portrays him.
Most people, either in support or in opposition to Khadr’s return, can have no honest opinion of just what to expect of this young graduate of years of al Qaeda and Taliban schooling followed by more than a decade of American custodial care. But a larger-than-life monster, a King Kong ready to straddle the CN Tower while hurling down improvised explosive devices upon the terrified masses below? Does that seem a bit exaggerated? Up to the plate steps Levant, declaring Omar to be a “remorseless, cold-blooded killer” with unfathomed “depths of … depravity,” a “psychopathic” “degenerate” “gangster,” “deranged … every bit as demented as Paul Bernardo, Canada’s infamous schoolgirl serial killer.” After invoking the spectre of anti-Semitic pogroms from the Nazi-like al Qaeda, Levant warns there would be nothing to prevent a repatriated Khadr “from loitering outside synagogues and Hebrew schools.” If the Khadr “fan club” is, in Levant’s subtitle, whitewashing Khadr, then Levant is just as assiduously blackwashing him.
There is more: Levant’s Khadr all his life has been aspiring to “greater, more murderous criminal heights,” aiming to become the “top dog of terror,” the “James Bond of jihad,” the “al Qaeda Idol.” Omar in Guantanamo has become the veritable al Qaeda “kingpin.” If you thought naively that the mantle of global terrorist boss has passed from the late Osama bin Laden to Ayman al-Zawahiri, as claimed by the CIA, you are wrong. Levant insists that it is actually Omar Khadr, a 20-something Islamist Al Capone running the entire global terrorist mafia from his cell in Guantanamo.
I will go this far in attempting to deal fairly with Levant’s hysterical rant: he is reacting to a tendency among supporters to sentimentalize Khadr. Of course, in trying to appeal to a public that is broadly indifferent or even hostile, there is a temptation to paint Khadr in romantic tones as a victim. He is a victim, of abuse of process and of his basic human rights, as Canadian courts have determined. But Khadr’s status as a victim of injustice does not magically transform him into a saint. And Levant has a point when he worries that excessive gilding of Khadr could encourage apologists for terrorists such as the Toronto 18.
Even here, though, any sympathy for Levant’s position fades fast in the face of his own vindictive aggression toward anyone who disagrees with him or is positioned anywhere to the left of his far-right conservatism (a rather large proportion of the population). The main target for his bile regarding the alleged sentimentalizing of Khadr is Michelle Shephard, author of Guantanamo’s Child, the first book-length reportage on the Khadr case. According to Levant, this is a “moist biography by Khadr’s most ardent spin doctor.” This is grossly unfair. Shephard is a fine journalist whose work is the very opposite of any kind of spinning. But she writes for the “notoriously left wing” Toronto Star, according to Levant, who appears on the notoriously right-wing Sun News (better known as Fox News North). Actually, from his position of splendid if lonely isolation, he sees all journalists, not just those from the Star, as driven by an “insecure need to seem progressive and morally nuanced and, thus, sympathetic to Islamist terrorists, especially Omar Khadr.” That is quite a syllogism, when you examine it closely.
In any event, under the table as it were, Levant actually relies upon Shephard’s journalistic skills. In filling in the background on the Khadr family, some 20 percent of his references are directly to Guantanamo’s Child, and many others come from Shephard’s citations.
Whether or not journalists and commentators have shown a pro-Khadr bias is, in the end, irrelevant. Let’s say Khadr is half the monster Levant depicts (no human being could fit the full Levant). This would in no way excuse the injustice of his treatment. The Canadian courts have found that Khadr’s constitutional and human rights have been violated. There is nothing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or in international law that stipulates that these rights exist only for people approved of by Dick Cheney or Ezra Levant. Indeed, if the application of fundamental rights were contingent upon prior political approval (by whom?), they would by definition not be rights at all, merely privileges accorded those who least need their protection. This is Human Rights 101, a course that on the face of it Levant must have flunked. I might add that Levant is also the author of Shakedown: How Our Government Is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, a lengthy denunciation of human rights commissions in Canada.
In practice, Levant steers well clear of engaging with judicial judgements on Khadr’s treatment. It is much easier to sneer at journalists and human rights advocates and pro-Khadr campaigners than to confront the considered opinions of the federal and Supreme courts of Canada. By ignoring and thus evading judicial opinion, Levant presents a dishonest picture of Khadr’s treatment.
Take the matter of torture. Guantanamo was already controversial as a prisoner of war camp deliberately set up in denial of the Geneva Conventions and on foreign soil in an attempt to evade the reach of the U.S. Constitution. But what deeply shocked opinion both inside and outside the United States was the revelation that Americans were practising torture on the inmates. Even George Bush, who had presided over the creation of Guantanamo and declared that Americans did not torture, was finally forced to call off the practice of waterboarding—repeated simulated drowning to induce panic and terror and break down resistance. This was going over to the dark side with a vengeance.
Levant, virtually alone in the civilized world, is not sure if waterboarding actually constitutes torture. But he triumphantly points out that Khadr was never waterboarded, and thus was never tortured. He even declares that Guantanamo has been an extended “Cuban vacation” for the lucky boy, a veritable holiday resort with delectable food and ice cream on order. Complaints made by Khadr about abusive treatment are airily dismissed as self-serving inventions to deceive Khadr’s gullible supporters.
While spinning this ludicrous tale of Guantanamo as a Club Med for terrorists, Levant carefully avoids even mentioning one crucial fact that strongly impressed Canadian courts. The smoking gun that implicated Canadian officials in complicity with legally unacceptable treatment was the acknowledgement by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that when an official met with Khadr in early 2004, the prisoner had been systematically subjected to what the Americans jocularly called the “frequent flyer program,” systematic sleep deprivation prior to and during the visit “in an effort to make him more willing to talk.” Sleep deprivation is a tool in the torture arsenal and is recognized as such in international protocols against torture.
This was a key point in Canadian law. The federal court held that Khadr’s section 7 charter rights had been infringed by Canadian complicity, as well as by refusal to recognize his special status as a minor. The appropriate remedy was for the government of Canada to seek his return. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the violation of rights, but chose to leave the government to devise its own remedy. The final plea bargain deal that will see Khadr’s return after a further year in Guantanamo, so fiercely denounced by Levant, thus conforms with the findings of the Canadian courts. Levant treats it as nothing more than a shameful surrender by Canada—easy to argue after you have systematically suppressed any reference to the ugly facts that led the courts to their judgement.
This is not all the contrary evidence that Levant ignores. The Security Intelligence Review Committee, the arm’s-length watchdog over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, looked into the interviews CSIS undertook with Khadr at Guantanamo—videotaped interrogations that a Canadian court ordered publicly released, much to the embarrassment of CSIS. Directed by SIRC chair Gary Filmon, a former Conservative premier of Manitoba, the SIRC report, even in its heavily redacted public version, is very critical of CSIS in relation to Khadr. The grounds for its criticism are telling: CSIS failed to take into account Khadr’s age and his lack of legal representation. Most significantly, SIRC cited government guidelines against Canadian cooperation with countries with poor human rights records: the U.S., at least in its Guantanamo manifestation, was one of these, as demonstrated in the treatment of Khadr. Does this give even slight pause to Levant in his painting of a jolly Cuban Club Med? Not for a moment. In Levant’s alternative universe, SIRC no more exists than do the justices of the federal and Supreme courts.
What does exist for Grand Inquisitor Ezra are two main sources for Khadr’s irredeemable wickedness. First is a very curious document called “Confession of Omar Khadr,” dated October 2010. The date is significant: the “Confession” is a document required by Khadr’s captors as part of the final plea bargain deal. Despite its title, it is not what most people would think of as a personal confession. It is written in the third person, obviously by Khadr’s jailer confessors. It ascribes malevolent intentions and actions to the adolescent Khadr under the wing of his jihadist father and al Qaeda trainers in Afghanistan, which amount to no more than the deliberate brainwashing of the young that one would expect from murderous zealots. That is why we have international protocols on the treatment of child soldiers. But with his usual sang-froid, Levant simply tosses aside the issue of Khadr’s age. Yes there are child soldiers, he admits, but Khadr is not one, despite his age and circumstances. Why? Levant says so. Call it the Levant exception.
As a prop for the prosecution, the confession pales in significance next to Levant’s rock star, Michael Welner, expert witness for the military prosecution at Khadr’s trial. By my count, 40 pages of some 200 pages of text in this book are almost entirely based on Welner’s evidence. Doctor Welner, Levant affirms, is “surely the top forensic psychiatrist in the United States.” Surely not. Welner is the inventor of something called the Depravity Scale that purports to measure criminals by the extent of their cruelty and brutality. Others have described this as junk science in which the moralism of the investigator undermines objectivity. Moralistic self-righteousness is certainly evident in statements he makes about Omar Khadr, who in Welner’s view is right off the Depravity Scale. This is evident in a bizarre appendix entitled, like a comedy sketch in some late-night TV show, “73 Reasons Omar Khadr Is Dangerous, According to Dr. Michael Welner.” This weird list says more about the minds of Welner and Levant than the mind of Khadr.
Welner was supposed to prepare a psychiatric assessment of the potential danger posed by Khadr’s eventual release. Although he billed for hundreds of hours, Welner admitted that he spent only about 1.5 percent of his time actually interviewing Omar, whom he clinically described as a “radical jihadist.” The trouble was, this so-called top forensic psychiatrist in the United States had no previous experience dealing with radicalized Muslim youth. He had, however, heard of a Danish doctor, Nicolai Sennels, who had developed an assessment framework for former jihadists released from prison, which Welner proposed to apply to Khadr. Under cross-examination, Welner admitted that he had not actually read Sennels’s book, since it was only in Danish—although he had had one telephone conversation with him.
But who is this Sennels whose views Welner proposed using as a template to judge Khadr’s capacity for reintegration into Canadian society? It took very little sleuthing from Khadr’s defence team to turn up some nasty bugs under the rock. Sennels is an anti-Muslim racist who has written that “massive inbreeding within the Muslim culture during the last 1,400 years may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool,” and warned about the “immature and psychologically unhealthy culture of Islam.” In an open letter to British prime minister David Cameron, Sennels opposed the Turkish bid to join the European Union. Describing the Quran as “a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things,” he declared that Turkish immigrants are “incapable” of integrating into “high tech” societies because widespread inbreeding in Turkey has dangerously lowered their IQ. Welner confessed to sharing some of Sennels’s political views. Which ones? We are not told.
Khadr’s defence quoted Marc Sageman challenging Welner’s alleged expertise in terrorism. Sageman is himself a forensic psychiatrist (and a former officer of the Central Intelligence Agency who ran sources in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan) who has written books on the phenomenon of radicalization and recruitment of Muslim youth into terrorist activity. Welner’s reponse was to denounce the defence challenge as “slimy and pathetic,” a “perfect wedding of the greedy ambition and presumptuousness of Sageman with a longstanding defence strategy of false charges against the government, the U.S. military, the prosecutors.” You can see why Levant loves Welner. But as for objectivity in assessing the radical jihadist Khadr, it is to laugh.
What can drive such unhinged hatred for a young man he has never even met?
Unfortunately, the defence was unable to mount an effective response, despite having two well-accredited psychologists ready to present a very different picture of Khadr. The military court resembled nothing so much as the trial in Alice in Wonderland: ‘“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said. “No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”’ The New York Times referred to the proceedings as “warped justice.” But the fix was in. Khadr had to plead guilty—to a death he may or may not have caused—and sign the bizarre confession written for him by the prosecution to conform to Welner’s take on his depravity, then submit himself to a jury sentence of 40 years’ imprisonment. In fact, this was a charade in exchange for a plea bargain of seven years and an agreement with Canada to finally take Khadr off American hands after one more year in Guantanamo. This is the deal that Ezra Levant denounces and that his entire book has been written to campaign against. In short, he demands that Khadr, stitched up in a kangaroo court sitting in an illegal prison camp, should have the one thing offered in exchange for signing away his right to defend himself, his return to the country of his birth, snatched away from him. This deceit apparently represents the fine moral sense of “our” side in the war on terror.
Given that Khadr is a Canadian citizen, it is unclear how Canada could refuse him re-entry once the Americans wanted him off their hands, but this nicety does not deter Levant, who would happily see the entire Khadr family stripped of its citizenship and deported (where?): call it another Levant exception, this time to the constitution, the Citizenship Act, international law and even to ordinary fairness.
The Enemy Within is an appalling book: deviously misleading, pompously self-righteous, laden with ideological bombast, suffused with a selective morality that openly supports a double standard that would strip some citizens of rights on the basis of Ezra Levant’s disapproval. The learned CBC sage Rex Murphy has declared that “Ezra Levant is the No. 1 advocate for, and defender of, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought in modern Canada.” If this is so, modern Canada is in very big trouble.
This is where you end up, in the Cold War or in the war on terror, when you accept a moral standard that says that since our antagonists are evil, we are without blemish, and thus we can use any means without restraint to achieve victory. A moral standard that says that the “enemy within” is not one of us and thus can be deprived of all the rights and legal protections we enjoy.
Yet even this does not fully explain the lingering sense of revulsion I am left with after finally closing this book. I have no idea what kind of a human being Omar Khadr is as a result of his nightmarish history; I would be astonished if he is able to emerge unscathed. But what I cannot fathom is the personalized vindictiveness without limit expressed by Levant against someone who has been systematically abused by all the adults and authorities in his young life. What can drive such unhinged hatred for a young man he has never even met?
On his last bilious page, Levant writes: “Letting in Omar Khadr is a full-force slap in the face to the Conservative base in Canada.” I sincerely hope that he has underestimated the basic decency of his fellow Conservatives.