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The Canadian University and the War Against Omar Khadr

Tyler J. Pollard interviews David L. Clark about inviting Omar Khadr to his university and Canada’s vilification of the young man.

Part of the Series

Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen who spent the first ten years of his life moving back and forth between Canada and Pakistan. In 1996 at the age of ten, he moved with his family to Afghanistan. He was subsequently wounded and captured at fifteen years old after a firefight with American military that left Sergeant Christopher Speer as well as a number of Mujahedeen dead. After his capture, Khadr was interrogated, tortured and held in detention first at Bagram and then for over ten years in the most brutal and punitive conditions at the notorious Guantanamo Bay. In 2010, Khadr pled guilty to war crimes before a now discredited military commission and was transferred to Canada, where he served time in two maximum-security prisons in Ontario and then Alberta before being released earlier this month. Upon his release, McMaster Professor and public intellectual Dr. David L. Clark wrote the following letter to Dr. Patrick Deane, President and Vice-Chancellor, McMaster University:

Listening to Mr. Omar Khadr speak yesterday, graciously thanking the Canadian public—as he put it—for trusting him and for giving him a chance, I was reminded of my dear friend and colleague, Professor Susan Searls Giroux, who, in her ground-breaking book, Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come, asks: “Can the university stand for peace?” It strikes me that an exemplary way in which we might answer that question strongly in the positive is publicly to offer or to hold open a spot for Mr. Khadr in our first year undergraduate class. Let me be the first to offer my assistance. I would be pleased to teach Mr. Khadr first-year English and Cultural Studies, one-on-one and remotely, if need be, or to offer him remedial help in anticipation of taking such a course. We at McMaster have a great deal to offer Mr. Khadr. And he would undoubtedly bring so very much to us.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Dr. Clark in order to give him an opportunity to expand on the letter and discuss the stakes of his educative, peaceful, and hopeful invitation.

Tyler J. Pollard: You recently sent a letter to Dr. Patrick Deane, President and Vice-Chancellor, McMaster University, in which you ask the university to make a spot available for Khadr to begin undergraduate courses. Moreover, you go one step further, offering your own one-on-one assistance in order to make easier what would certainly be a difficult transition to life as an undergraduate at a Canadian university. I wonder if you might talk a bit about what led you to offer this deeply moving and important political challenge to President Deane and McMaster University? Why do you think public education is such an important site of intervention given the remarkably painful and unjust experiences Khadr has faced in his still young life?

David L. Clark: The fate of Mr. Khadr has long troubled me, as it has many others in Canada and indeed abroad. So what I’ve done by writing this letter is not done in isolation. Far from it. I’m not some rogue professor and this isn’t a publicity stunt. There is a significant history of carefully reasoned advocacy on behalf of Mr. Khadr and it is that work that informs my reaching out to President Deane, and through him, to the university community as a whole, both McMaster and other public universities in Canada. UNICEF, Amnesty International, the Canadian Bar Association, Free Omar Khadr Now, among many other groups and organizations, have from the very beginning of Mr. Khadr’s ordeal spoken powerfully against his grotesque mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. government and the U.S. Military Commission, as they have against his shameful abandonment by Canadians and the Canadian government. I think that it is very important to remember amid all the fear-mongering swirling around Mr. Khadr, fear-mongering that has momentarily intensified now that he has been released on bail, that many Canadians unequivocally reject the notion that he poses a terrorist threat and that he was found guilty of murder or abetting terrorism by anything resembling a fair and impartial judicial process. The award-winning 2008 CBC documentary, The United States vs. Omar Khadr, for example, is still well worth watchingbecause of the rigorous way in which it brings out the extraordinary confusion over what took place in eastern Afghanistan in July, 2002, when Mr. Khadr was captured. I’m not sure how anyone could watch that documentary and come away completely convinced that Mr. Khadr had killed Sergeant Christopher Speer, the Delta Force soldier who succumbed to his wounds two weeks after the firefight near Khost. In the absence of anything like substantial evidence, how is it then that the Canadian government let Mr. Khadr languish in Guantanamo Bay, where, as the Supreme Court of Canada subsequently found, his Charter Rights had been repeatedly abrogated and where he was subjected to a judicial process hardly worthy of the name and that has since been widely discredited? The producers of the CBC documentary are only one example of many others who have called Canada to task for its willful failures regarding Mr. Khadr. In 2012, Senator Romeo Dallaire spoke eloquently in the Upper Chamber of the Canadian Parliament, making a detailed argument for why “the case of Omar Khadr taints this government,” as he put it, as well as “this country and all of its citizens.” Senator Dallaire, who knows a thing or two not only about actual combat, but also about child soldiers, strongly encouraged Canadians to focus on the violations of Mr. Khadr’s rights and on what the Canadian government’s complacency about the matter said about our country’s supposed commitment to peace and to democratic values. Consider too the words of Dr. Constance Backhouse, Distinguished University Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa: “Some cases enshrine the defining moments of their time,” she notes; “Omar Khadr’s is one. Future generations will rightly judge our shocking dereliction of responsibility in this matter [and] our collective Canadian failure to extend justice and humanity.” And let’s not forget award-winning journalist, Michelle Shepherd, who has been writing about Mr. Khadr for years, pointing out how, in the midst of post 9/11 paranoia (remember that he was captured and tortured less than a year after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center), he was disappeared as a real human being and transformed into a kind of exemplary subject of the punishing state.

So my letter to President Deane emerges out of an already existing and robust history of critical discussions about and advocacy for Mr. Khadr. But I think one big turning point for me came several years ago, when, at a meeting of The Advocates’ Society in Mexico, I met Ms. Rebecca S. Snyder, a young Navy lawyer who had been one of Mr. Khadr’s military co-counsel during his years of incarceration in Guantanamo Bay. She addressed that conference of lawyers with such moving fearlessness, both criticizing the dangerously skewed judicial process into which Mr. Khadr had been thrown and describing the misinformation that had been circulated by the U.S. government about Mr. Khadr, including, crucially, about what happened on the day that he was captured. She walked us through photographs taken in the aftermath of the firefight. What we do know is that Sergeant Speer was fatally wounded; several Mujahedeen, whose names I’ve never heard spoken or read in print, were also killed. Mr. Khadr was himself gravely wounded, and would have perished on that battlefield had the U.S. military not decided at the last minute that it wanted to glean information from him . . . and to do so by any means possible. 27 July 2002: an awful, awful day. – Awful for the loved ones and acquaintances of all those who were wounded and killed, including the grieving family and friends of Sergeant Speer; awful too because scenes like this, overflowing with killing violence, would be repeated for years and years to come in Afghanistan, and the repercussions of which are felt today in this country. In the shadow of this violence and death, the question, it seems to me, comes down to this: do we pursue vengeance or do we pursue justice? Do we endlessly perpetuate violence or do we actively seek ways to foster humane reconciliation? Imagine the courage that it took for a professional soldier like Ms. Snyder to defend her “client” under these circumstances, and to speak out against the most powerful military force on the planet in the panicked years following 9/11, when the U.S. government was doing anything, saying anything, to prosecute the war on terror. If Ms. Snyder managed to do that admirable work, I can certainly write a polite letter to my university’s President and Vice-Chancellor, inviting him to offer a space in our first-year class for Mr. Khadr and indicating how I would welcome him into any first-year course that I was teaching. It is a relatively minor move, in the larger scheme of things, but it is meant to be taken up as sincerely meaningful. My objective is two-fold: first, to offer assistance to Mr. Khadr, who, like all young people, deserves both access to a good education and to be treated with dignity and respect; and second, to contribute to the creation of a robust dialogue about the roles that the Canadian university can and must play in the creation of a more just, democratic, and humane public sphere. What’s important for me is to keep the hopes and needs of Mr. Omar Khadr front and centre, but also to offer Canadians a way to interrogate the fear-mongering narratives by which Mr. Khadr’s life has too often been over-written. Reading some of the hate mail that I’ve received since issuing my invitation to President Deane, I start to see more clearly than ever before the importance of Humanities students and professors in making such thoughtlessness and warring aggression legible for all to see and resist.

But listening to Mr. Khadr speak publically, for the first time, last week was the proximate cause of my letter to President Deane. I heard in Mr. Khadr’s voice and saw in his eyes something that, as someone who has been a professor for over thirty years, I’ve seen thousands of times before – namely an expression of the hopes and concerns of a thoughtful young person, the inextinguishable desire to create a meaningful future and to become a valued member of a larger polity. Before all Canadians, he has asked to be given a chance. Who among us that advocate for peace and reconciliation can deny him that request? But it’s not enough to say that he deserves to be given a chance. It is important to provide him, and indeed all young men and women in the country, not platitudes but something substantial, something real. What better chance, I ask, could he possibly be given than a seat in McMaster University’s first year class, or, for that matter, a seat in any public university? My understanding is that he has already been offered a space in a small private Christian university in Alberta, and indeed that professors there, including professors of English like myself, have been tutoring him. Splendid! I can’t tell you how moving it is to hear these things. So the time has come for other universities to step up and do the same as a sign of good faith, as a welcoming gesture to Mr. Khadr that is made in the name of justice and peace but also as a way of acknowledging that whatever the U.S. Military Commission determined about Mr. Khadr, he deserves the opportunity now to thrive in the country of his birth. Here in our classrooms and among our students and professors Mr. Khadr could dwell in a space of free and open critical inquiry, a rich environment of curiosity, debate, and above all, hope. He would work and learn side by side with some of the brightest students in Canada and with some of its best researchers. In a country in which a truly democratic public sphere struggles to survive, and in which Canadians are repeatedly and anxiously asked to coalesce—insofar as they coalesce at all—around fear and loathing of the other, listening to and acting upon Mr. Khadr’s measured words strikes me as only right and good. He teaches us before we have had a chance to teach him. Of course, it may well be that Mr. Khadr has quite other plans, now and for the future. Moreover, he might not be able to accept an offer of admission to McMaster University for any number of reasons. For example, Mr. Khadr might not be able to afford coming to the university, which, after all, as my students can certainly attest, is quite expensive to attend. And for now his bail conditions might well prevent him from accepting an offer, if an offer was made, or they might prevent him from physically coming to campus . . . which is why I indicated to President Deane that I would be perfectly willing to teach Mr. Khadr first year English and Cultural Studies one-on-one and remotely. I’d love to see him enrol but even if he did not or could not, offering a place in the first-year class is in itself vitally important. It would say so much. It would say something unequivocally encouraging to Mr. Khadr. It would be a lesson in reasoned hope. It would say something unequivocally affirming about McMaster University and about the roles that the public university in Canada can play in the creation of a more humane and democratic polity. The discredited U.S. Military Commission in Guantanamo Bay is acknowledged around the world to be the very opposite of a democratic polity. So it stands to reason that the university should exemplify what that U.S. Military Commission was not and could never be. Mr. Khadr’s release on bail has triggered a new wave of fear-mongering, as the Canadian government loses control of the narrative about him. This is precisely the moment for the public university to intervene, offering hope not fear, reason not hatefulness, thoughtfulness not thoughtless recrimination and aggression. If we at McMaster don’t stand for these things, what do we stand for? If we don’t stand for peace, then what is our future in the midst of this warring age?

Tyler J. Pollard: I think the notion of peace and the important role of the public university is so important here. In your letter, you refer to Professor Susan Searls Giroux’s important and probative question from her monograph, Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come, in which she asks: “Can the university stand for peace?” Perhaps, in particular given that you have written extensively about the importance of pedagogy and peace, you could discuss how you see this invitation as a gesture of peace, and more generally, why you think it’s so important for a public university in these dark times to “stand for peace”?

David L. Clark: Dark times, indeed, while, in the run up to the federal election, the Prime Minister continues to vilify Mr. Khadr as a threat to national security (despite the fact that the courts have found otherwise), and when the federal government intensifies its powers of surveillance without sufficient oversight. Canada sleepwalks into yet another war with no clear objective other than the mad need to be seen to be handy with deadly and expensive weapons on the world stage. You’d think that the catastrophic war that we helped prosecute in Afghanistan, and the ocean of useless suffering that that war has now left in its wake, including not only Mr. Khadr’s suffering but also the suffering that Sergeant Speer’s family endures, would lead Canadians to be much more circumspect about entering combat again. But that’s not been the case, and so darkness indeed prevails. All of these phenomena—the demonization of Mr. Khadr at the highest levels, the passage of Bill C-51, and the combat role that Canada is playing in Syria and Iraq—are linked. They speak to the creation of a nexus of paranoia, violence, and militarism that acts to disable and pacify the citizenry and that specifically forecloses the future of youth. We spend billions of dollars on fighter planes we do not need while so many youth struggle to find a meaningful place in Canadian society. But I’ve long said that Canadian universities, which are, after all, almost exclusively public universities, have an abiding obligation because they are public. They have been created and sustained in the public interest, and so in the interest of the flourishing of public—shared, democratic—values rather than private worries. Because of their public mission, they should model peaceableness and make a case for peaceable co-existence in the face of war and in the face of the deforming pressures of militarism that have now effectively created a permanent state of war. During the decade that the Canadian armed forces were in Afghanistan, Canadian universities were conspicuously quiet about the war, preferring for the most part to lie low at the precise historical moment in which those universities should have stepped forward to foster a rigorous discussion about why, as a society, we remain invested in militarism. After all, the wars we prosecute are fought almost entirely by youth and in regions of the world whose populations are largely composed of youth. The human costs of war are now and have perhaps always been hugely borne by young people. So it stands to reason that a university like McMaster, which wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the youth that make up almost all of our student body, should be committed to ensuring that we never resort to killing force without scrupulous thought. All Canadian universities have a lot of work to do on this front, that is, in forming part of a lively public sphere in which war is subject to ongoing and scouring critique. And a place where we might begin is by inviting Mr. Khadr to join McMaster’s first year class. Such an invitation would be an enormously peaceable gesture for two reasons. First, it would be welcoming to him, and welcoming in a very particular way, i.e., offering a hospitable place to a young man whose country of citizenship has otherwise proven to be utterly inhospitable. Critics of Mr. Khadr often focus on the battlefield where, as a gravely wounded child, he was captured in 2002. They choose to ignore the war that the Canadian government subsequently waged against Mr. Khadr, making no attempt to extradite or repatriate him, effectively abandoning him to the machinations of the U.S. Military Commission, which, as we know, simply invented its own rules, its own laws, to suit the war on terror.

I wonder how many of the individuals who insist the Mr. Khadr is a killer and a terrorist would be willing to let their own children be judged by the same commission? Not many, I’ll wager. Mr. Khadr was classified as an enemy combatant so that he would not be afforded any of the protections ordinarily given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Instead, he was criminalized for actions that may or may not have taken place in Afghanistan. Under duress, Mr. Khadr agreed to a plea deal admitting guilt but has since pointed out that he has no recollection of throwing the grenade that killed Sergeant Speer. A leaked memorandum from the U.S. military subsequently showed that even soldiers on the ground could not say with certainty that Mr. Khadr had been responsible for Sergeant Speer’s death. What is certain is that, as a child, he was found in the demolished ruins of the building in which he and adult Mujahedeen fighters were holed up, grievously wounded. I’ve seen photographs taken of him on that day and, as his Navy lawyer pointed out, he was more dead than alive and very unlikely to have been in any position to fight. In any case, he was saved on the battlefield in the hopes that he could be interrogated and tortured, which is precisely what happened to him, first at Bagram and then at Guantanamo Bay. For over a decade he languished in that hell-hole while the Canadian government did nothing to protect him. So it’s revealing to me to hear Canadians who insist without hesitation that Mr. Khadr’s rights be abrogated forever: for those Canadians, the rule of law applies equally, but less equally to some. Is that really the kind of Canada that we want to live in, one in which we wage war against our own citizens, stripping fellow citizens of protection under the law or abandoning them to extra-legal proceedings like those carried out by the U.S. Military Commission? Canadians who say that they despise Mr. Khadr – but whence comes this rage, this aggression? – say that he was convicted as a war criminal and so must be disposed of, but they do so by conveniently forgetting that he has now served most of his sentence and has been granted bail. But that is in fact the very least that needs to be said. Canadians who vilify Mr. Khadr make these pronouncements without understanding or caring to understand the unique circumstances in which Mr. Khadr was charged and found guilty—i.e., not in a courtroom in Toronto or Halifax or Medicine Hat but, of all things, the U.S. Military Commission working in one of the most notorious prison complexes in the world, a Commission which doesn’t in the slightest resemble any court in Canada and which has repeatedly and flagrantly demonstrated its disregard for due process and its indifference to impartiality. I’m always amazed by those Canadians who assume unquestioningly that Mr. Khadr was given a fair and impartial trial when those same Canadians would be appalled if their own children found themselves shackled before a Military Tribunal in Guantanamo Bay or a torturer at Bagram Airforce Base. None would stand for being held in detention for a decade without being charged. No Canadian would put any stock in a system in which they were tortured as a matter of course, a system that is under no obligation to observe the rule of law. A Canadian who found himself or herself in such circumstances would rightly say that any legal decisions emanating from this dreadful place are in fact poisoned with illegality through and through. In other words, as Canadian citizens protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms they would insist on being given a fair and impartial trial. But not Mr. Khadr. To me, this is nothing less than an example of citizens perpetrating war against him. That war has got to stop and one possible way to help bring it to a halt would be to welcome him to McMaster University, whose very motto, after all, speaks to the principle of inclusiveness and of forging communities.

McMaster has a unique opportunity to renounce that war and to stand instead for peace. In doing so, it would join all those others, both within and without Canada, who have pointed to the specific ways in which Mr. Khadr has been unjustly treated.

So why do some Canadians put such unmitigated faith in that commission’s findings, and in the plea deal to which Mr. Khadr agreed but under such palpably mitigating circumstances and so obviously as a means to get out of Guantanamo and back to the country of his birth? It completely flies in the face of reason that fellow citizens would rather see a former child soldier, who, as a child, could not be held to be a competent belligerent on a battlefield, treated as toxic and disposable. He is neither toxic nor disposable. What are the origins of this sometimes ferocious desire to render him expendable and unworthy? Universities are perhaps the best place in the world to ask and answer such questions, helping others understand why being schooled into aggression towards others withers the democracy that we claim to inhabit and cherish. Under what specific historical circumstances does it become impossible to view Mr. Khadr as a human being and instead, irrationally, to indulge in fantasies of carrying out vengeance against him? Why do some Canadians dream not only of harming him but of harming him forever? Since universities, public universities, are founded on reason, as the great French philosopher, Jacques Derrida reminds us, let us, as members of the university community, and in the name of reasonableness, stretch out our hands to welcome Mr. Khadr. Let us affirm our commitment to social justice against those who would fall back on irrational prejudices or thoughtless opinions, especially prejudices and opinions fuelled by a government that is so unashamedly marshaling us around “shared fears” rather than “shared responsibilities,” as my friend and colleague, Dr. Henry Giroux would say. Let us move well beyond abstractions and platitudes and instead embody the spirit of justice and reconciliation in everything that we say and do.

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