On being ... ashamed

By Ingrid Sapona

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I was 12 at the time and 14 when Woodward and Bernstein’s book “All the President’s Men” was first published. Watergate made me a news junkie and that book convinced me to go to journalism school. One of the indelible marks the story of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting left on me was the fact that news stories develop in fragments – fragments that sometimes don’t even seem related. Putting the story together and reaching a conclusion about it takes patience, attention, and time.

Though I’m not putting my journalism training to use as a reporter, I often read and follow stories the way an investigative report might. I find little details that intrigue me, or that don’t make sense to me, and I kind of tuck them away in the back of my mind. Then, for weeks (or months) after that, I watch for follow-up stories or other details that might be connected. I get a great sense of satisfaction putting the fragments together into a truth that informs the way I look at the world.

But, for every story I eagerly follow, there are dozens that don’t interest me at all – and I’m not just talking about stories relating to the death of this or that pop star. Sometimes there’ll be a story that I kind of ignore, but after five or six headlines about it I think, “gee, maybe I should be interested in it”. Then I try to get up to speed on it by finding an article that summarizes all the issues (editorials are great for that). After that, I usually continue reading the headlines about it, but I don’t necessarily delve into it much beyond the headlines.

A prime example of this is the story of Omar Khadr – the only Canadian held in Guantanamo Bay. The story goes back to 2002, which is when Omar was taken into U.S. custody in Afghanistan for allegedly killing an American soldier. The U.S. claimed Omar lobbed a grenade that killed the American. Omar was 15 at the time of the incident.

Omar was born in Canada to immigrant parents. Growing up, his family moved back and forth between Toronto and Afghanistan. Controversy swirls around the Khadr family, with reports of some connection to the Bin Ladens and to financing al-Qaeda. Omar’s father was put on a list of suspected terrorists after September 11 and he died in a 2003 shootout with Pakistani forces near the Afghan border.

Other members of Omar’s immediate family have been in the news here many times over the years. Omar’s older sister has been particularly outspoken, giving interviews that Maclean’s magazine characterized as glorifying suicide bombers and justifying terrorist attacks. As one news story from 2006 put it, “The Khadr clan, which is often referred to as Canada's 'al Qaeda family' has provoked intense debate in Canada.” I don’t know quite when it happened, but at some point I became fed up with hearing about them and I intentionally tuned out all news related to the Khadrs.

But this week I saw a documentary called: “You Don't Like the Truth – 4 Days Inside Guantanamo”. It showed Canadian intelligence officers “interviewing” Omar Khadr in February 2003 at Gitmo. The tapes of the four days of interviews were released in 2008 after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian government had to hand over evidence to Khadr’s legal team to ensure they could defend him. (Full disclosure – because I had long ago tuned out, I didn’t know anything about the Canadian Supreme Court decision or many of these details.)

All I can say is that watching the documentary, I cried. The interrogation seemed quite civil – absolutely no physical or verbal abuse. But Omar clearly thought the Canadians were part of the diplomatic corps and, at the beginning, he was hopeful they had come to help him. By day two he realized the interviewers were part of the Canadian intelligence service and they were trying to get information about his family members. The interview, however polite, was very much an extension of the psychological torture of this young man.

Hearing Khadr’s sad voice as he mumbles that no one cares about him, and then later seeing him weep inconsolably while the tape is running but the interviewers are out of the room, you can’t help but be struck by the fact that he’s just a child. Regardless of whether he did what the U.S. alleges, at the very worst, he was a child soldier and he should have been treated like one. I know civil liberties of all sorts have been suspended in the name of the war on terror, but what of human compassion?

As I watched, I also felt guilty because I, like so many Canadians, have not spoken up or done anything to try to get the Canadian government to speed up Khadr’s return to Canada. (In 2010 Khadr pleaded guilty to five charges before a U.S. military tribunal. As part of the plea deal he became eligible to return to Canada to serve the remainder of his eight year sentence. But, he’s still there and the Canadian government is clearly dragging its heels.)

After watching the video I feel ashamed I have chosen to ignore Omar Khadr’s plight all these years. From the very beginning of the story of his capture in 2002, all the news stories mentioned his age. But, until I saw the video, I too was willing to ignore that fact. I now realize I let my mixed feelings about accusations against his father and other family members provide me with an excuse to tune out this news story. In doing that, I was turning away from the plight of Omar – a child – hell, a human being – without knowing enough of the news story to reach a reasoned conclusion. Shame on me – shame on all of us...

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


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