Monday, November 1, 2010

The Omar Khadr Case: Is the War on Terror a Real War?

Although the Omar Khadr case is full of contradictions, it also holds the key to understanding the "War on Terrorism". You can read about it in this Australian news story, much easier to understand than any Canadian papers, as we Canadians are too involved with it.

This case sums up the contradictions in the war on terror. The essential ambiguity is that it is not a real war. In a real war, you have countries fighting each other with uniformed soldiers. Terrorism is stateless, there is no enemy country. The military is fighting underground organizations. There are some people who think that the fight against terror should be an international police effort, that terrorism should simply be considered a crime, and the perpetrators captured and put on trial in a normal court of law. But other people argue that it is more than criminal activity, and police action is not enough to stop it.

The Omar Khadr case exemplifies the confusion between war and police action. In a real war, it is not considered illegal to throw a grenade, or shoot a gun. In fact Americans do it all the time. But yes, in peacetime, it is actually illegal to throw a grenade at someone, even a soldier.

Yesterday, Omar Khadr was found guilty of throwing a grenade, and sentenced to 40 years behind bars. Does that make sense in the light of what actually happened? This is the situation. A fight took place between a handful of AL Quaida members and about 100 soldier, US and allies. The American assault included air strikes that basically killed every one of the Al Quaida people, except Omar Khadr. The assault was not illegal. But at some point, a grenade was thrown at an American, and this act was considered the criminal act.

Omar may in fact be the one who threw the grenade. There is no question that he was in the house during the slaughter. Omar was the sole survivor on the Al Quaida side, and badly injured during the fight. He was also 15 years old, and a Canadian citizen. But he was not a legitimate combatant, so it was illegal for him to throw grenades at American soldiers, or shoot them, or do anything against them.

The Americans wish that it was a real war, and they could drop all the pretense of "due process of law". It would be ideal for them if the enemy would form up in battalions with uniforms, tanks, generals, barracks and headquarters. They wish the enemy would name a country that they belong to. Then we could have a nice clean war like WW2, where it is obvious who would win. (assuming the enemy had no comparable air force of course, or atomic bombs). But the real weakness of the military is that they are always fighting the last "good" war, and have no understanding of the next one.

So what we have is a new kind of war. A war where the usual conventions of war don't apply, but the usual conventions of the peace time criminal justice system do not apply either.

We actually need some new rules that make sense. Right now, Americans are making up the rules as they go along, nobody else is being consulted. And maybe they are right. But what they decide is what military combat will probably look like for many years to come.

There will be no rules to protect the enemy. Once a certain group is declared to be terrorists, then it will be legal to bomb villages where they are thought to be hiding. It will be legal to kill civilians who may or may not be the enemy. It will be illegal for anyone to shoot back, to possess arms which may injure the legitimate army (whatever country that may be, USA, or China or Russia for example). It will be legal for a country with a strong military to invade another country to root out the terrorists, and the invaded country will not need to be a real threat, or even be belligerent. It will be legal for the military to detain anyone for any reason, and it will be legal to torture detainees into naming collaborators or confessing to crimes. It will be legal to assassinate (for example by missile strike) foreign leaders who are thought to be cooperating with terrorists. It will be legal to hold trials for terror suspects, without giving them any of the traditional benefits of the legal system. It will not be necessary to honour the Geneva conventions of war unless the terrorists are uniformed soldiers, under orders, defending themselves against an attack. People of a certain religion will become legitimate targets, wherever they live, similar to the old concept of "holy war".

Although none of these characteristics are being written down in a new code of conduct yet, the rest of the world is watching, and getting the message.

Maybe we should learn the lesson of history. The world was horrified that the Nazis starved and killed millions of innocent people in concentration camps. But who invented the concept of concentration camps? I believe it was the British, during the Boer war in about 1900. They rounded up all the Boer women and children, forced them into camps, where tens of thousands of them died of starvation and disease. The lesson is, if you do something bad, sometimes other people will adopt your ways. On the other hand, Jesus said "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And I believe it's still a good rule today. It's just sad that a country calling itself "Christian" seems to not get it.

Picture: I am not sure what this picture means, but I got it from the website calling itself "Satan's Point of no return", and their message seems to be that the Muslims are taking over the world and all the women will have to wear a burkah. (Just my own comment here: I lived in a Muslim country for three years and never saw one burkah. So maybe the Muslims should be talking to their own women first before they try to spread that style of clothing around to blue eyed blond women, who are probably Christian or maybe atheists at worst.)


  1. yeah I find this case very hard to stomach...just seems to be a very big catch 22

    One wonders do the Americans involved get medals? Like purple hearts? If so--how aren't those for being in a war?

    Certainly this will bite the Americans in the ass someday when it gets turned around on them

    You say

    The Omar Khadr case exemplifies the confusion between war and police action. In a real war, it is not considered illegal to throw a grenade, or shoot a gun. In fact Americans do it all the time. But yes, in peacetime, it is actually illegal to throw a grenade at someone, even a soldier.

    Actually disagree--in a non-war situationn if somenoe fires at you with a weapon-aren't you allowed to defend yourself? (OK not usually grenades involved) Heck Americans have gotten off in situations where they only felt threaten by tresspassers...

  2. Yes, I have heard that some Americans have gone free after killing "illegal" trespassers. But I was thinking of the military as a police force. Are you allowed to defend yourself if the police, in the line of duty, during peace time, are the ones firing on you?

  3. Scapegoating - n. 1. the practice of singling out one child, employee or member of a group of peers for unmerited negative treatment or blame.

    Khadr entered a guilty plea to what much of the press is (tendentiously) reporting as 'terrorism charges.' The U.S. thus becomes the first nation since WWII to use a war crimes tribunal to prosecute and convict someone for acts allegedly committed as a juvenile. In doing so, it is playing politics at the expense of a child soldier.

    It seems to me that there is considerable hair-splitting, hypocrisy and application of double-standards - politically motivated, of course - going on here. After all, American combatants in Afghanistan are not entirely lacking in culpability, but we, of course, will not see military tribunals sitting in judgment on any ISAF members for 'war crimes' or for 'terrorist charges.'

    The 'war' in Afghanistan is, of course, not a war. The U.S. has not been involved in a declared war since WWII. Neither is the 'War on Terrorism' a war - it is cynical politicians playing to the fears of the public; a public which is willing to tolerate more highway deaths each month than all the people killed by terrorists in the U.S. in the past twenty years.

    Terrorism is not an enemy, it is a political technique; one cannot 'win' a 'war' against a political technique. In my humble opinion, the 'terrorists' have won. The 'West' and especially the U.S. are doing pretty much what the terrorists had hoped for.

    And, in the eyes of many Afghans (and Iraqis and other Muslims), it is the Americans who are the 'terrorists.'

    A 'war' that is not a 'war'? Some of had hoped that the U.S. had learned some lessons from its misery in Southeast Asia.

    Perhaps only the prospect of national bankruptcy will cause the U.S. to make a more realistic assessment of its militarism.

  4. well if a solider/police officer was to fire upon you with no provocation, then yes I think you could be justified in defending yourself-as they would be outside their line of duty

    as we have found out all too well lately-military are just people so it is possible they could attack you without cause

    so then does it come to who fired first in this case? Did the Americans fire on Omar or did OMar fire on the Americans?

    To me it doesn't matter--it is a war zone whether the Americans care to say so or not--apparently there are picutres of some of the American forces involved in the fire fight wearing non-uniform garb--so the whole soliders have to be in uniform goes out the door...and in a war--you get to fire back

    the whole thing is a farce...and shame on Stephen and his bunch for going along with it...

  5. Beansbiker writes, '... so the whole soldiers have to be in uniform goes out the door.'

    Blackwater, anyone?

    Although the U.S. outsourcing of combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq gets into the gray areas of mercenarism, in my humble opinion, it clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN Conventions which criminalize all mercenary activity.

  6. The entire firefight is told in detail in Wikipedia under Omar Khadr

    Here is a mention of the first shot.

    "An Afghan militiaman was sent towards the house to demand the surrender of the occupants, but retreated under gunfire."

  7. Reinforcements from the 3rd Platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 505th Infantry Regiment arrived under the command of Captain Christopher W. Cirino,[49][51] bringing the total number of Americans and Afghan militia to about fifty.[52] Two of Zadran's militiamen were sent into the compound to speak with the inhabitants, and returned to the Americans' position and reported that the men inside claimed to be Pashtun villagers. They were told to return to the huts, and inform the occupants that the Americans wanted to search their house regardless of their affiliation.[51] Upon hearing this, the occupants of the hut opened fire, shooting both militiamen.

    Gee--how many Americans would open fire rather than let armed people they don't recognize as any authority invade and search their house??

    And of course--sure first shot may have been fired by the people in the hut in this particular instance--but step back from that-who fired the real first shot--would it not be the invading forces? (aka the Americans)

  8. To get back to your first question, does it matter who fired the first shot? Assuming it is a war, usually soldiers may be shot on sight by opposing soldiers whenever and wherever they are found, unless they have surrendered or are defenceless. But this war has different rules. All the Al Quaida fighters are deemed by the Americans to be illegal combatants, and every time insurgents fire or return fire, it's a punishable offence. This decision was made by the U.S. early on in the War on Terror. Most of these cases do not come to trial because the illegal combatants who kill Americans are either killed or escape.

  9. The U.S. tends to define 'illegal combatant' to suit its own purposes.

    Another instance of American double standards.

    When the use of irregulars suited their purposes in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, the mujahideen were extensively supported with U.S. funds, weapons and training and referred to as 'freedom fighters.'

    Having achieved their objective of evicting the Soviets, but stuck with the 'unintended consequence' of the Taliban regime, the U.S. conveniently relabelled hostile Afghan irregulars as 'illegal combatants,' but did not apply the same standard to the irregulars in the Northern Alliance.

    In the final analysis, it's these subtle, disputable and (likely) spurious distinctions that are at the heart of the travesty at Guantanamo Bay.