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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Omar Khadr and the Lessons of Buchenwald




At this stage of the game, you either believe that Omar Khadr is a youth who has suffered much at the hands of oppressors (including his parents), or you believe he is an inhuman monster who can not be trusted, ever, and should be either contained until death or killed now and have done with it.

If it's the latter, you perhaps see Khadr not as a human, but a symbol of the evil Islamist (or just plain Muslim) barbarian hoard that seeks to destroy Western culture and conquer Western lands with their numbers.  To you, Islam may feel less like one of the Abrahamic religions and more like a zombie hoard that must be kept at bay and ideally destroyed - for purposes of self-preservation, of course, because in this game it's them or us.

Should you feel some empathy for Khadr, however, you probably recognize him as a human who was presented a skewed world view by his parents, thrust into a conflict as no child should be and then abused by agents who either saw him as an animal or a political pawn.  You also believe that political game-playing is still going on.

Here, then, is the most basic question, the test of Khadr's humanity.

Could he produce children with other people - African, East Asian, Caucasian?  Of course he could.

Would a child of Khadr's be susceptible to developmental influences?  Without doubt.  Pick the kid up and raise him in China with Chinese parents, his culture and outlook will be different than if he grows up on a remote First Nations reserve, or on the streets of Mumbai, or in a massive Rosedale home.

If we recognize Khadr is human, however, then we might need to consider the possibility that other individuals in the group he's been lumped into - terrorists, Islamists, Muslims, whatever - they might be human, too.  Like we are.  

And if it's possible that, in spite of his whole life being a sad saga of manipulation and abuse, Khadr is still capable of hope and change, then the same holds true for all of us, doesn't it?

It's a very uncomfortable question, this, with deep meaning.  If a die-hard ideological terrorist can learn to change his ways, then the reverse is likely possible, too, isn't it?  And if people are so malleable given the right influences, what does this say about our individuality, our pride of self?

Consciously or not, we much rather us-vs-them narratives that focus on us being right and them being a threat.  The more of a threat they feel like, the less human they will seem to us.  Instead they are animals, even vermin.  You don't waste precious resources talking with vermin or accommodating vermin, do you?  They live in squalor, they spread disease - the only thing to do with vermin is destroy them.

We can talk about the inherent violence of Islam.  We could talk about the inherent violence of Christianity, too, reflecting on the crusades, Inquisition, various wars of conquest.  We can talk about Europeans, about Muslims, about Arabs - but the bottom line is that underneath all the layers, we are all human.

In the Concentration Camps of World War II, inmates - including my grandfather - had their humanity stripped away from them. The SS treated inmates like vermin, and intentionally so; the more they could dehumanize their captives, the more they sapped their morale while also strengthening the resolve of their troops to treat all foes as inhuman.  

Camp survivors will tells stories about being so weak, so broken that when someone near them died in their tracks, those who lived had neither the strength nor will to care.  It was all one could do to survive, and when survival was such a high bar to reach, you couldn't focus on anything else.

People who've never endured that type of horror often say "you could have resisted more" or "you could have fought harder", which is a bit like telling an asthmatic to just breathe more or a cripple to suck their pain and walk.  It's no different than suggesting a 15 year old Omar Khadr should have spontaneously developed an understanding of the world separate from what his life experience had presented to him and be one of us in their ranks, stopping his dad and the adults around him from committing terror or die trying.

We've got this quaint notion of what counts as a real human - rational actor, uninfluenced by environmental circumstances, willful enough to climb any mountain and overcome any challenge physical, psychological or external.  People not meeting that standard; well, they're not quite human, are they?  And not as deserving of the fruits that come to those that are human?  

It's a real easy notion to convince yourself of if you have never suffered, or if you see the end-game for suffering as being the removal of those who cause you ill.

I've never met a single Holocaust survivor who wishes that all Germans die for their sins.  They don't believe in an eye-for-an-eye.  Having seen the absolute worst of humanity - having had their own humanity stripped from them and gone through the painful, lonely process of regaining it - survivors don't endorse dehumanization in any form, directed at anyone.

They know all too well the ugly outcome when dehumanization of the other is a strategic objective.

The tortures and abuses Omar Khadr faced pale in comparison to what Holocaust survivors endured. By his own admission, Khadr threw a grenade; rest assured that there were many Buchenwald inmates who were incarcerated for fighting against the Nazis. The regret Khadr is expressing sounds much like that of the children and grandchildren of Nazis that I know, which equally sounds like the regret you might hear from a drunk who killed someone while driving.  There's this disassociation from the person or community that committed inhuman acts that doesn't deny responsibility, but rather recognizes a terrible reality - that whatever we think of ourselves, we each have within us the ability to do stupid, selfish, inhuman things to those who have done nothing to deserve it.

We're only animals, after all.


It's funny that, for all the talk about original sin and stories about floods, golden calves and the like, there are still those of other Abrahamic religions quick to pounce on Muslims as uniquely ungodly  and especially capable of ungodly acts.  The underlying theme of the Old and New Testaments is that people are flawed; we must recognize that and aspire to be more than base instinct to be deserving of the greater love which is there for us regardless. 

If Omar Khadr is rejecting the path that his life set out for him and seeking the positive, that is a hopeful story.  He's right on the money when he says we should afford unto others the opportunities we would like to afford ourselves.  Think about that in terms of economic disparity, electoral prospects of marginalized individuals, of women on boards and in Parliament, even access to the subway.  

If you believe humanity is incapable of securing its own salvation, then life to you is probably a race to the finish, or a circling of a shrinking water hole.  Both scenarios involve an end-game with a last-man-standing, which is exactly how the Nazis viewed their conquest.

On the other hand, if you believe what Khadr has said - that there is good in people, that we are capable of better, then you have to recognize the good and bad in everyone.  The good won't thrive unless it is nurtured.

Bitterness, competition, end-game planning or hope, collaboration and constant adaptation.

That's the real us vs. them - where we come from, as a species, and what we can, at our best, aspire to be.

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