Welcoming Omar Khadr Home for Thanksgiving

In early October, many Canadians travel “home,” to their families, to celebrate Thanksgiving. Families are celebrated, constituted, and affirmed in this ritual feast. On September 29th, just in time for Thanksgiving, Omar Khadr found himself on a flight from Guantanamo Bay to Canada. Khadr’s homecoming s contested and raises questions for the nation as the family writ large. A commenter on a news story remarked: “It does not seem right that Canada took him back into her arms after trying to cut one off.” Happy Thanksgiving, or what?

Who is Omar Khadr? He was born in Toronto. The Khadr family spent much time in Afghanistan, where the US-backed fight of Mujahedeen against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s morphed into other forms of organized violence in the 1990s. Omar’s father Ahmed Said Khadr was part of the Al Qaeda circle; he and Osama bin Laden attended each others’ children’s weddings. Omar was raised in this environment. On 11 September 2001, when he was 15, Al Qaeda members hijacked four planes and crashed all of them, obliterating the World Trade Center, killing and maiming thousands of people. In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US and allies invade Afghanistan. Omar’s father was on the list of wanted terrorists. Omar was part of the war that came to the place that his family stayed at. On 27 July 2002, he was part of a group that was attacked by U.S. forces. In the attack, Omar was seriously injured; all other members of his group were killed. Three coalition soldiers were killed, among them one U.S. soldier. Omar Khadr was captured and eventually transferred to the infamous detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Is Omar Khadr a terrorist like his father, or was he a child soldier? Did he betray Canada? This is how we debate him.

Yet some basic facts about Khadr’s detention and ‘trial’ in Guantanamo are absent from this discussion. Yes, Khadr was a minor at the time of his capture and arrest, and courts typically refrain from charging persons under 18 years of age for violence committed in war. This is the child soldier argument. I agree with it; and yet, it is not even half the story.

Omar Khadr was classified as an “alien unlawful enemy combatant.” If this phrase seems new or confusing to you, your intuitions are correct. Let’s review the law of war. In its basic form, the law of war, called humanitarian law, distinguishes between two groups of people: civilians and combatants. For each group, different rules apply. Civilians may not participate in violence, and they cannot be targeted by combatants. Combatants are allowed to participate in the violence of war (within bounds, such as not targeting civilians), but they can also be legitimately targeted in war. Those who kill can be killed.

What, then, is an “alien unprivileged enemy combatant”? The phrase “enemy combatant” was coined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1941 decision on German soldiers who, while sneaking into the U.S., got rid of their uniforms in order to commit sabotage. The court intended the term to be for one-time use. It allowed the government to treat some people as having none of the rights of civilians and none of the rights of combatants. This concept was recycled and extended through a series of court decisions. If you want to know more about the details, how about you read my article on the U.S. Supreme Court and enemy concepts?

After 9/11, the US government wanted to wage a war against people that had committed a crime; and it got tangled up in the contradiction between the different logics of crime and war. After a few years of legal wrangling with the Supreme Court, the government passed legislation establishing military commissions to try “alien unlawful enemy combatants.” “Alien” because U.S. citizens were entitled to rights that people like Omar Khadr weren’t. Those rightless people were subject to detention until the “war on terror” ends (don’t hold your breath) as well as trials by military commissions. These military commissions did not include independent lawyers or judges, and they operated by rules of evidence that seemed to have been copied from Stalin’s playbook. Technically, the Nuremberg Trials were also trials by military commissions. In practice, the Nuremberg trials relate to the Guantanamo Bay military commissions like a mansion to a wooden shack with a half-finished roof.

Omar Khadr was, in other words, rendered rightless by the country that captured him. He was also tortured. The conditions at Guantanamo Bay were such that up to this point nine detainees have committed suicide, and an untold number have attempted to do so. Details here and here and here.

What did the Canadian government do upon finding out about the legal black hole and physical torture that a Canadian citizen, a minor, was subjected to? Nothing worth reporting.

The UK government, also an ally of the U.S., was more vigorous in demanding the release of three UK citizens, the so-called Tipton three. Since their release in 2004, Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul have talked about the vilification and the mistreatment they endured. Under physical and mental assault, they made false confessions: “Mr Rasul admitted meeting Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, in Afghanistan in 2000. In fact, he was working in a Currys store in the West Midlands,” the Guardian details. While the UK government could have done more for its citizens, the Canadian government could hardly have done any less for Omar Khadr.

In 2007, Omar Khadr was charged by a military commission with murder and attempted murder in violation of the laws of war. Khadr was charged with murdering U.S. soldier Christopher Speer by throwing a hand grenade, and with manufacturing IEDs, i.e. home-made explosive devices.

In October 2008, as part of a “pre-trial agreement”, Khadr admitted to killing Christopher Speer at a time when the firefight had ended. This statement was part of an agreement in which Khadr agreed to an eight year prison term, part of it to be served in Canada. This statement is not a document of facts found by an independent court, but a statement obtained through torture, intimidation, and the sheer inequality of the parties at military commissions. Remember that Shafiq Rasul admitted to meeting Osama bin Laden when Rasul was in fact in the UK. Khadr’s statement in the pre-trial agreement is also the basis for his possible parole hearing in Canada.

About a week ago, Khadr has come back to Canada, to a mixed reception of hostile voices (Public Safety Minister Vic Toews called him a “known supporter of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist”) and embarrassment for Canadian inaction in his case. He is imprisoned in high-security facility in Millhaven, Ontario. He will be eligible for day parole in January 2013, and for full parole later in 2013. This raises the question how Khadr and Canada will negotiate on his parole.  What does it mean to come home for thanksgiving? On which terms is he allowed to come? Are we ready to hear the complaints that the wayward son might have about us?

In order to get parole, the Parole Board tells us on the website, the board will look at:

  • Your criminal and social history, the reasons for and type of offence, including your understanding of the offence and any past offences;
  • Any progress you have made by yourself or through participation in programs, your behaviour in the institution and while on any previous conditional release(s);
  • Any victim impact statements;
  • Your release plan and your community management strategy.

What is Khadr supposed to say at his parole hearing? He counts as being guilty of an offence that would not be an offence if his age had been taken into account or if the U.S. had not invented the concept of “unprivileged enemy belligerent.” What kind of remorse can, should, or may we expect?

And what kind of rehabilitation should his detention in Guantanamo, prolonged through Canadian inaction, have constituted? If anything, he will need rehabilitation for the things he has experienced in Guantanamo.

Finally, is Khadr expected to reach out to “the community” of Canadians, to beg to sit at the Thanksgiving table, as if only he has done wrong, while the Canadian government and public are to be thanked for their “tolerance” of this “terrorist”?

This is going to be a complicated Thanksgiving with Omar Khadr in the country, locked away, and expected to talk to us at the parole hearing. Yet welcoming Omar Khadr back to Canada should not become an exercise in congratulating ourselves for braving the danger that he might pose. It should instead be an exercise in questioning how family and nation are felt, shaped, and upheld through action and inaction – not only on holidays, but throughout the entire year.

Making People Invisible: Reading Eastwood through Ellison

Here’s how my research is going: it’s the Friday before Labour Day, the term starts next week, and I’m in denial about these basic facts. I’m also in the midst of taking notes, the most dreary part of research ever. I wanted to write a post about this, but then I watched the video of Clint Eastwood at the Republican Convention. The video is here.

I had gleaned from the twitterverse that the speech was rambling, potentially embarrassing, and weird. So I decided to watch it. What I saw almost made me choke on my blueberry yoghurt I had for second breakfast after swimming. Clint Eastwood put an invisible Barack Obama on a chair next to him to put him down, and to put profanities in Obama’s mouth. Oh my.

Has no one at the RNC read Ralph Ellison’s Insivible Man? It’s a great novel about the ways in which Black people in the South and in New York City are made invisible by the politics of looking, noticing, and looking through people. When I read the book, I was a grad student, new to the US and their racial politics, and I read the book on roughly the same subways that the protagonist rides, being made invisible. I do not claim to know now how it feels to be made invisible. But I am profoundly grateful for the novel; it made me so much more alert to the ways in which people interact in public space, including in the very subways I was riding. It made me feel uncomfortable in a very productive way. Maybe that’s why I like to do subway photography now … but I digress. One other blog post I have seen so far has made the connection between Ellison and Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood, in turning President Barack Obama into a cipher, an abstraction that cannot be seen, and cannot talk back, has done us the great service of illustrating the racial politics of the GOP. Minorities are talked about, not invited to talk. It’s better to fantasize about someone’s responses and explanations than to actually ask them and listen. And it’s impossible to imagine Black people to utter anything except for the kinds of profanities that would justify silencing them.

One could argue that Eastwood did not read Ellison and had no idea that his speech & interactions would come across as “offensive”. Or something like that. To which we should respond that it’s not just about the novel. Behind Eastwood, the grumpy old white man, stands a speaks an ugly string of US politics and history. As Judith Butler remarked on hate speech and hateful performances (in Excitable Speech, for the geeks that want to check out the book), the message is not on the surface of the utterance or action; it is created through the repetition and invocation of a history of racism, subordination and violence — and in this case, silencing. Eastwood enacted not only his own fantasies, but ways of seeing that run deep within US politics. It is everyone’s responsibility to not continue these structures of feeling; these ways of seeing, silencing, and muting people.

In the twitterverse, meanwhile, @invisibleObama is a new and thriving account. Barack Obama has responded to the performance with a tweet saying “This seat’s taken” and this photo. And this one. Did chairs just become a political issue?

This post has just become a research-in-progress update on two projects: first, the Hate 2.0 project, in which we should ask, with Butler, who and what speaks in racist speech: not only the speaker, but what else? How can we make sense of racist performances, their contexts, and the politics of blame around them?

Second, this episode got me to think about the upcoming project on making violence visible/invisible to international law. I am interested in the ways by which people make the claim that certain forms of violence should be a matter of concern of international law. Case studies will include genocide, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and bombing. The project will also get me to think about what we mean when we say that something or somebody is visible or invisible. What are the regimes and nuances of visibility? I realized that my copy of Invisible Man is, well, not invisible, but in Germany. Let’s not make any more cheap jokes. So I ordered a new one, and I am looking forward to re-reading the book. Next on my reading list, however, is George Orwell’s 1984. Everyone in my faculty is supposed to read this book (doesn’t this sound like an Orwellian fantasy already?) and discuss it. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 19th to talk about it. Stay tuned. I will blog about reading the book.

Olympic Hate: A Tale of Fine Lines

This post originally appeared on Hate 2.0

The Olympics Games are in full swing, and we at the Hate 2.0 project are watching. We are not only interested in the stellar performances by Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and others, but also in the forms of inclusion and exclusion that the Olympics practice.

The good news: This is the first time that all participating countries sent female athletes. To be sure, Saudi Arabia was less than supportive of its two female competitors, runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani. While these two women are challenging norms of femininity in Saudi Arabia and conservative Muslim communities, other athletes have breached racialized codes of who belongs where: Gabby Douglas has become the first African American and the first woman of colour to win a gymnastics all-around gold medal, and Cullen Jones made clear (to whoever needed proof) that black men can not only jump but also swim.

While this blog loves good news, we’re more interested in the mixed, messy and downright alarming news. Let’s focus on the share of the Olympics news that intersects with our work on hate and social media. So far, three Olympic athletes have either been sent home or left the Olympic village for reasons of racist behavior or associations. In two cases, the offences were committed on twitter, and in one case the long-standing association to neo-Nazi groups was exposed in a blog post.

The first athletes to leave the Olympics was Paraskevi Papachristou, the Greek triple jumper who tweeted (according to available translations) “With so many Africans in Greece… the West Nile mosquitoes will at least eat homemade food!!!” The Greek Olympic mission withdrew her from the competition and sent her home. Papachristou apologized on facebook, writing “I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.”

The next athlete to pack up was Michel Morganella, a Swiss soccer player. After his team lost to South Korea, he wrote a racist message about South Koreans on twitter, was cut from the team, and apologized on twitter.

Finally (hopefully finally, that is), German rower Nadja Drygalla packed her bags and left the Olympic village. A blog based in her hometown Rostock revealed that her long-time partner Michael Fischer was a local Neo-Nazi leader. Fischer had been sighted at Neo-Nazi demonstrations, yelling, and taking photos of anti-fascist counter-protestors. He ran for parliament on the ticket of the rightwing NPD, he published and edited websites associated with the Neo-Nazi community.
Over the next few days, a few things happened: The German Rowing Federation and the Olympics Committee stood behind Drygalla, citing her departure from the Games as voluntary. Meanwhile a debate erupted in blogs and newspapers: are we blaming a woman for the views of her partner? Was she ever part of the Neo-Nazi network? Who knew what, and when? Who should have alerted whom, when, and why?
The facts are complicated. One newspaper published a blurry photo of a Nazi demonstration claiming that a woman in a white sweater was Nadja Drygalla. This is most likely not the case. More interestingly, it turns out that her partner Michael Fischer had been an elite rower who was at the same time known as a hooligan. He straddled the worlds of competitive sports and organized hate and violence for a few years. Nadja Drygalla has since claimed that she has never adhered to Neo-Nazi ideologies and that her partner has left the organization in May 2012. The latter statement seems patently untrue.

Why have these tweets, associations, and behaviours attracted so much attention? The initial reactions to all three events have emphasized that racism is contrary to the Olympic principles, to the oath that all Olympic athletes have sworn in the opening ceremony. According to the Olympic Charter, Olympians “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Moreover, “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Racism is contrary to the official ethos of the Olympics.

A closer, more critical glance at the organization and practical ethos of the Olympics reveals something else. The Olympics organize athletes, events, and medal counts by country. They ask viewers not only to appreciate athletic achievements in general, but to take pride in the triumphs of athletes from their own country. The athlete stands in for the country, the flag, for the nation. True, there is the idea of the Olympic Peace: the cessation of armed conflict during the Games. But clearly, this is not happening in Syria right now. The Olympics, let’s put it this way, are replete with structural nationalism. They are the arena for competition between athletes and teams standing in for nations, dressed in uniforms with their national colours. Taking pride in one’s country during sports events might seem harmless, but it coincides with the devaluation of outsiders, as studies have shown. There is no such thing as harmless nationalism. The Olympics thrive on nationalism, and they fuel it. They want to be associated with pride in one’s country, but not with the devaluation of outsiders that tends to accompany such pride.

Viewed in this light, the reactions to the tweets and associations of the three athletes show that the Olympics are trying hard to draw a thin line between a “good” nationalism of pride and a “bad” nationalism of devaluating others that is to be expelled from the games. The triple jumper made horrific jokes about immigrants and the outbreak of a disease transmitted by insects. The soccer player did not contain his disappointment at losing in match, and expressed it in demeaning racial terms. We learn that losing is part of the Olympics, but it is to be done gracefully. The row about the rower also suggests, uncomfortably, that there is nothing inherent about sports that makes racists incapable of succeeding. Insofar as the rower had to deal with ethnic, religious, or racial diversity, it was not within her team of eight ‘vanilla’ rowers. The ‘others’ were competitors, not teammates. To be sure, this team make-up is a result of German immigration policies and sports recruitment, but the under-representation of migrants in many sports is a consistent problem. More generally, the virtues of elite sports are not incompatible with the world of hate: To be a good rower, one needs to have determination to succeed in competition, focus, and the ability to deal with pain and disappointments. These qualities have no necessary connection with democratic politics; they can also be the make-up of an extremist, of a warrior of a different kind.

The Olympics mirror a larger world in which the celebration of diversity and equality is at odds with the focus on achievements defined in a particular way:

First, athletes are sorted by countries; and they have to settle on one country they can represent. This is bad news for stateless people, and makes for hard decisions for those with multiple nationalities. Wouldn’t it be great if someone could win the Olympics representing two countries, or no country at all?

Second, the competition is intensely skewed. Countries with many (young) people, a good sports infrastructure, a high GDP and strategic investments in sections of the sports “market” do well at the Olympics. Winning Olympic medals is a function of economic prowess and priorities as much as of individual physical achievement.
Third, the Olympic circuit itself does not promote an equitable or sustainable growth in infrastructure. Olympic hosts tend to go into debt, hyper-police the cities during the events, make housing unaffordable and then harass homeless people, and are later stuck with bizarre-looking reminders of the big party in the form of velodroms or ski jumps.

A sports event that sorts athletes by nationality and counts medals by country does not promote hate, but it fosters nationalism. The Olympic Oath, after all, asks athletes to compete “for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” While competitiveness and striving for glory are ingrained in the social organization of elite sports, human rights and equality are merely add-ons: they are not structurally necessary to succeed, but they are socially desired in order to foster the Olympic spirit. The Olympics would like to show nationalism without hate. The three athletes that were made to leave the village because their actions crossed the line that the Olympic organizers anxiously seek to draw.

What can we do about it? First of all, let’s take note of the fact that the Olympics are structured to promote nationalism, that it could be otherwise, and that nationalism has side effects in the form of hate and devaluation of outsiders. Second, let’s draw lines and censor the athletes and coaches who cross them, but let’s recognize that there is indeed only a thin line between legitimate disappointment and racist suspicions about opponents, or between competitive zeal and the exclusions of others who are perceived to be lazy. Finally, let’s find ways of organizing sports and the world at large that are less conducive to hate, exclusion and devaluation.