Relentless Torture

Reviewed by Tim Blackmore

Reading editor Janice Williamson’s Omar Khadr, Oh Canada is like having an endless wisdom tooth extracted-no anesthetic. For that and a number of other reasons this superb collection deserves a wide readership and long life. It trains all available instruments on the Khadr case as Williamson and her authors walk the hermeneutic circle.

Williamson has divided the text into five related sections (e.g., “The Saga of Omar Khadr,” “Omar Khadr, Child Soldier,” and so on) each of which has an attendant intermission that Williamson calls “Reflections,” places for poetry, art, informal writing and responses to the case. After a while these sections prove vital to maintaining the reader’s attention-the material and Khadr’s dreadful reality are fittingly relentless. Each section, each article, gives a brief account of the Khadr saga. The book is sympathetic to Khadr: if you’re looking for the dominant narrative about Khadr provided by the half of Canada that wanted him to rot in Guantanamo, tune into any big-box media site and be reminded.

The book is first clear about the facts of the case, and even lays out a timeline for the Khadr family. There is a long, excellent discussion of some key issues that undoubtedly went into the making of this particular legal, diplomatic, policy- and human- rights disaster. One may have forgotten the so-called “Khadr effect,” the Khadr family’s relationship to the Canadian media and public (the word “hostile” doesn’t adequately express the jets of mutual loathing that spewed in every direction), and the fate of the other Khadr children. Williamson has handled these issues thoughtfully and well. By the time the reader is half a dozen articles into the collection the picture of what happened has become a series of images of what possibly might have (perhaps) occurred. This is a complex collection reflecting an urgent and equally agonizing subject.

Some of the best texts include ex-Consular director Gar Pardy’s diplomatic images of Khadr across a fifteen year period; author Charles Foran’s painfully honest assessment of the two worlds his middle-class daughter and Omar Khadr represent; Judith Thompson’s superb one-act play “Nail Biter” about a lost soul who once was an interrogator; law professor Audrey Macklin’s clear-headed view of the surreal events at Khadr’s military “trial,” which bears as much resemblance to a trial as Kraft Dinner does to food; lawyer Dennis Edney’s highly charged discussion of how systemic and normalized racism naturalizes Khadr’s abuse; and legal historian Grace Li Xiu Woo’s stark assessment of how the Canadian Supreme Court ducked its duty to a citizen.

All authors have worked around the same core texts: Agamben’s Homo Sacer, the NFB documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantanamo, and the Khadr family’s history. The cloud around the shared texts is that the repetitions become numbing. The thick bright lining to that cloud is that one could take any article and successfully pull it out of the collection: each article and its potted history stands alone-a true gift for a teacher who wants to use some but not all of this epic.

Hardest to grasp is how human beings could have interrogated and played power games with a child suffering physically and emotionally. The cold brutality of the CSIS interrogators in the near-black site prison is matched by the Harper government’s refusal to acknowledge Khadr as a citizen with any rights. In struggling to wrap my head around just how so many could have acted so badly to this child, it became clearer to me how Mackenzie King’s Liberals denied entry to so many of Europe’s fleeing Jews. For governments that profess to put family above all else, racism can be easy. If Others don’t belong to the family, they are to be shunned and punished. It’s not complex. What happens to the incarcerated body is immaterial to the family because that body doesn’t factor in the family’s accounting. What Williamson’s collection makes clear is just how bad Canada can be, especially when we measure our behavior under duress: we’re hardest on the weakest, cruelest to the helpless, murderous with the Other. Williamson’s book shines a dazzling beam into the prison of atrocity and helps us understand how hatred drives legal, governmental, and social policy, sanitizing it all the while. When we look away, Canada becomes as ugly as any extant torture state. Keep your eyes open and use them to read this book.

This review “Relentless Torture” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 195-96.

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