Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

How Serious People Talk About Omar Khadr And George W. Bush

On Sunday, reporters and other Serious People referred to Omar Khadr as an "accused terrorist." On Monday, when Khadr stood before a military commission in Guantanamo and accepted a plea bargain, he became a "confessed terrorist." This is now the standard nomenclature of Serious People. Indeed, when Khadr's lawyer later said "it's all a fiction ... in our view Mr. Khadr is innocent," Norman Spector pronounced himself "troubled" in The Globe and Mail. Khadr swore to the truthfulness of the accusations, he wrote. Reporters should now be pressing his lawyer to say whether he "is of the view that Omar Khadr committed perjury? And, if so, did he counsel his client to do so?" In ordinary circumstances, I would understand Norman Spector's concern. A plea at trial is normally the last word on whether one is or isn't a criminal. If the defendant says "guilty," it doesn't matter that he had his fingers crossed. He's guilty. And the "accused terrorist" becomes the "confessed terrorist." But do I really have to note that these are not ordinary circumstances? Omar Khadr, as we all know, was arrested in Afghanistan and later accused of being involved with terrorists, making improvised-explosive devices, and, at the end of a battle, throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier. He was 15 years old at the time. He was in Afghanistan courtesy of his father, an al-Qaeda financier, who took Omar as a young boy to Pakistan, and later Afghanistan, to be raised in what can best be described as a death cult. Being 15, Khadr was a child soldier under the terms of a United Nations convention signed by, among others, the U.S. and Canada. Certain important obligations followed from that. American officials honoured none of them. As a minor, Khadr was also entitled to certain forms of treatment under other international conventions which the U.S. has signed. Again, American officials refused to honour their obligations. Instead, Khadr, who had been gravely wounded, was fiercely interrogated by the U.S. military in Afghanistan for more than three months. He was hooded, forced into painful stress positions, threatened with barking dogs and bullied. A guard warned him that another prisoner who didn't co-operate had been gang-raped to death. Sent to Guantanamo, he was again subjected to a constant barrage of interrogations, during which he was shackled in painful positions and told he'd be shipped to Egypt or Syria to be tortured. The first time he was allowed to speak to a lawyer? November 2004. Two years after he was detained. The following year, Khadr was finally charged and set to be tried by a military commission created by President George W. Bush. The commission was a flagrant kangaroo court. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court quashed it and Khadr's charges lapsed. Khadr was charged again when President Barack Obama authorized new commissions whose procedural rules are fairer than before but still deeply flawed. How flawed? Despite the corroboration of key events -- notably the threat of gang-rape -- by the government's own witnesses, the presiding officer saw nothing wrong and deemed the statements Khadr made during those brutal interrogations admissible evidence. There isn't a civilian court in the western world that would have done the same. I could go on. And on. But I think the point is clear. The handling of Omar Khadr's case more closely resembles justice in China or Iran than it does justice in Canada or any nation whose judicial procedures deserve our respect. So what does the plea bargain really mean? Khadr has already spent one-third of his life in prison. He is being tried by a stacked military commission. He faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in a locked box. And so, on Monday, after eight years maintaining his innocence, Khadr confessed. Sure. He's a terrorist. Whatever. A coerced confession is no confession. And if Omar Khadr's confession cannot be described as coerced, the word should be stricken from the dictionary. But not according to the Serious People. He confessed. He's guilty. And if his lawyer says "it's all a fiction," well, pass the smelling salts and start the investigation. Someone may have fibbed! Goodness. Fibbing is wrong. And so it is. But you know what's worse? Grotesque abuses of human rights. Profound violations of the rule of law. And, most of all, torture. We now have abundant evidence that high-ranking officials in the last U.S. government authorized all these acts. Yes, even torture. Dick Cheney all but boasted about it. Torture is a major crime under international law and the law of every civilized nation. And authorizing torture is no different than personally inflicting it. So we have compelling reasons to believe U.S. officials up to and including President George W. Bush committed major crimes. But Serious People never call those officials "suspected criminals." Indeed, they never discuss their criminal culpability at all. They even roll their eyes when some odd person suggests that Bush, Cheney, and the rest may be criminals who should be held responsible for their actions. You're not a Serious Person if you say that. But Omar Khadr is a "confessed terrorist." That's what Serious People say.