By now you’ve heard of the Canadian government’s decision to give Omar Khadr 10.5 million dollars and a formal apology from the government for his mistreatment in Guantanamo Bay and the government’s subsequent mishandling of his case. You’ve probably heard both sides of the debate. On one side, we hear the conservative appeal to reason and outrage over giving a convicted terrorist millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. On the other, we hear the more liberal appeal to empathy for a child soldier that was pushed into bomb making at an early age. You are probably expecting me to take a side in this debate, but instead I would like to give a different perspective.
One would think that when having a debate or stating their case, both sides would stick to the facts and their interpretation of them. You would expect to see opinion articles listing Khadr’s crimes. You would expect to see stats and psychoanalysis’ by psychiatrists about the inner workings of the brain and how it pertains to radicalism. You would expect to see government policies up for debate. You would expect to see past practise court cases and laws listed from the criminal code and human rights code. But instead, we are seeing something entirely different. We are seeing an appeal to empathy. Interestingly enough, both sides are using this same tactic to push their point of view. I see memes that show a picture of Khadr’s face with a wicked grin on it and a homeless veteran below with a thought bubble saying “I fought for the wrong side.” I see pictures of Christopher Speer’s family in outrage over the settlement. These pictures want us to feel what it must be like to be a homeless veteran hearing this news. They want us to feel the pain and outrage that Christopher Speer’s family felt when they heard that he had been killed in combat. On the other side of the spectrum you hear the liberal call to put yourself in his shoes. What must it be like to be a teenage boy who was brain washed into bomb making by an extremist ideology? Think of the horrors and tortures he encountered in Guantanamo Bay and the Canadian refusal to bring him back to his country of birth to stand a fair trial. Should we just lock up child soldiers and torture them for information? Or should we help them and provide them with the necessary social assistance to overcome their past?
These emotions are biased. They distract us from the true debate. They distract us from the question that is at the center of the lawsuit that Khadr filed against the Canadian government. Did the government mishandle his case and subject him to unfair and unnecessary suffering and torture in Guantanamo Bay, and if so, should he be compensated for the horrors he went through? Most people can agree that the Khadr case was mishandled; however the Canadian government’s decision to pre-emptively settle the case outside of court is almost an admission of guilt. We don’t know what the results would have been had the government waited for the courts to give a verdict. Given the fact that Khadr was suing for 20 million dollars, perhaps the government wanted to cut their losses.
Whatever the reasons were, the settlement has left people with more questions than answers. Now we must ask ourselves if the government has done the right thing to atone for its mistakes. Many people answer with a resounding no, basing their conclusions almost entirely on empathy for the Speer family and countless other veterans that haven’t made out nearly as well.
So I ask you this question then: can we truly have an objective opinion based on fact when our opinions are skewed by empathy? We can say we don’t believe that a terrorist should be given 10.5 million dollars. We can say that a child soldier shouldn’t be treated as a criminal, rather as a victim. However we can’t say the government made the wrong choice (or the right one for that matter) given the circumstances. Why? Even though we know the facts of Khadr’s life and imprisonment, we were kept entirely in the dark about the reasons behind the settlement. No official statement, media release or even an honest answer can be found from our government. The public and news outlets have filled this void with supposition, cries of outrage, and calls to empathy that are entirely irrelevant and in the worst case scenarios, misleading.
So rather than jumping on bandwagons and responding heatedly to the latest meme on the internet, why not begin to think critically about the issues at hand? Why not take a logical position rather than an emotional one? Why not think for yourself and look at all the angles instead of jumping to conclusions? Why not read the psychologist Paul Bloom’s book ‘Against Empathy’ and see for yourself if his case for rational compassion is a better substitute? Why not post below and give me your opinion? Thanks for reading.
Jonathan Beam is the author of Crimson Morning - The Philosophy of Travel, available on the member page by signing up above. He is a blogger who writes about travel, adventure and philosophy. He has also written a novel that is currently under consideration to be published!