In 2002, Omar Ahmed Khadr was just fifteen years old when he tragically changed the course of several lives. In the midst of a firefight in Ayub Kheyl, Afghanistan, he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier, medic Christopher Speer. In the same skirmish, Omar was severely wounded. He was captured by the Americans, charged with various war crimes, and held at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade. After nearly a decade of imprisonment and torture, he pleaded – and was found – guilty. We know all about him – because he’s not just any underage war criminal. He’s our underage war criminal. He was born in Canada, to Canadian citizens of Egyptian and Palestinian origin. He spent his childhood bouncing back and forth between Canada and the Middle East, attempting to settle in Afghanistan just in time to be swept up in its conflict with the United States. Young Omar joined the war effort against America, and has paid a heavy price for it. He was repatriated to Canada in 2012, and this week he was set free on bail. His freedom comes with a number of conditions, from a nightly curfew and an electronic tracker to restricted internet usage and supervision of all contact with his family.
For many Canadians, the name Omar Khadr is synonymous with evil. To them, he’s a lost cause – a terrorist who murdered one of the good guys, a threat to our peace and stability, deserving of a lifetime wasting away in a chamber of horrors like Guantanamo Bay. For many other Canadians – myself included – he’s one of us, and deserving of better than what he’s been given.
For one thing, he was a young offender. He was a teenager. Think about your teen years for a moment …. All of us did stupid things when we were fifteen. Some of us did illegal things, and some of us did awful things. A teenager’s brain is not like an adult’s brain, which is why they are treated differently by the justice system. Under Canadian law, to which he is entitled as a Canadian citizen, he should have been tried as a child. Many young Canadians commit terrible crimes. The ones who are under eighteen, like Omar at the time of his capture, are given special consideration by the law. Juries and judges consider their upbringing and circumstances, and usually hand them lighter sentences than they would receive if they were older. Their names cannot be released, because we want them to straighten up and fly right, without the burden of notoriety. They are given a chance to learn from their mistakes and change for the better. For another thing, Omar was heavily influenced by his family, and thought he was fighting for them. Like many young people, he had a limited world view shaped by limited experience – and his elders took advantage of that to use him as fodder for their war machine.
Even adults in Canada who commit heinous crimes are often given a chance to reform. There are armed robbers, rapists and murderers here in Canada who have spent less time in jail than Omar, and their crimes were committed independently – as adults in a free and peaceful country. Are they entitled to more leniency and goodwill than Omar?
Did he do something horrible? Yes. He took a life. It may not have been the first one, either. He took Christopher Speer from his wife and two children, and everyone else who loved him. He spent years being punished for it. He was fifteen when he lost his freedom; he’s just now getting some of it back at twenty-eight. He has apologised repeatedly for what he did, and is asking other young people to stay away from the influence of terrorism and seek education. He has denounced jihad, and intends to live a peaceful life. He is thankful to Canada for setting him free, and has promised to prove that he is a good person. This will be much easier for him to do if Canadians give him a second shot – if we extend a hand in welcome and good faith, rather than turning our back on him and writing him off.