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 >

Omar Khadr And The Logic Of Tribalism

Omar Khadr, meet John Walker Lindh. John, Omar. I probably don't need to tell John about you, Omar. You've been all over the news lately. But it's been many years since John made headlines. In November, 2001, John Walker Lindh, an all-American guy from San Francisco, was captured while fighting Northern Alliance troops with the Taliban. "The American Taliban" had gone to Afghanistan months before 9/11, but still he was a real, live traitor. Righteous anger focused on one skinny, bearded man. Omar, you're probably wondering why I've made this introduction since, in a sense, your situation couldn't be more different than John's. He was an adult who made a choice. You were a child, compelled to join the al-Qaeda death cult by your appalling father. But there are important similarities in your cases, too. You were both barely alive when you were captured, for one. And you were both horribly abused. John was blindfolded, stripped naked, strapped to a stretcher with duct tape, and put in a freezing shipping container. A bullet was left in his thigh. He was fed only 1,000 calories a day. A physician described him as malnourished and disoriented. "Suicide is a concern." Interrogated for five days, John made statements that became the key evidence against him. When he was finally sent to a Navy ship for treatment, a report noted he was "suffering from dehydration, mild hypothermia and frostbite and could not walk when he arrived on board." Omar, you were an emaciated, wounded, and terrified 15-year-old when the interrogations began -- with you on a stretcher. You were subjected to stress positions, cold temperatures. You were shoved, hit, and threatened with military dogs. One guard warned you that an unco-operative prisoner had been gang-raped to death. I should note this is your version of events but, given what we now know of American handling of prisoners in those years, your story is only too credible. But worse than any of that, I suspect, is the limbo they put you in. At Gitmo, you were routinely subjected to isolation for as much as a month. It took three years before you were finally charged. Now five years have gone by and still you have no hope of a full and fair trial. And so, despite never having been convicted of any crime, you have now been a prisoner for eight years, or one-third of your entire life. And yet, a whole lot of people don't care. I hate to say this, Omar, but lots of Canadians would be happy if you never left prison. That's because of something else you share with John Walker Lindh. You were both on the wrong side. People are tribal. There is Us and there is Them. Us is always a cut above Them. But when the Them in question is as truly vile as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, modest partiality can become overwhelming bias. In a telling experiment, psychologists asked some Israeli Jews to judge a peace proposal put forward by Palestinians. They said they didn't like it. Which was interesting because the proposal had actually been drafted by the Israeli government -- and other Israeli Jews, who had been told it was an Israeli proposal, rated it much more highly. If Russians had treated you and John the way Americans did, and if you and John had been involved with a terrorist group people had never heard of, everyone would agree that you had been horribly abused. Yes, they would say, terrorism is odious and must be fought. But nothing justifies brutality and torture, the removal of fundamental human rights, or the punishment of a child soldier as if he were an adult with a choice. But Russians didn't do this to you and you weren't with some group we'd never heard of. It was Us who did this and you were with Them. So it was right. No matter what. There's one more thing you have in common with John. Or at least you may, soon. In July, 2002, prosecutors who had boasted John would get three life sentences plus 90 years stunned everyone by agreeing to a plea bargain. John got 20 years in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges -- and agreeing to withdraw accusations of torture which were about to be made in court. Off he went to prison. Where he was promptly forgotten. Now it seems you, Omar, will take a plea bargain. Eight years, reports say. No one can blame you, of course. The trial is stacked against you and you could spend the rest of your life in prison. But if you take the deal, you will officially be guilty. You will be done. And forgotten. And it's likely that those who did so much to you will never be held to account. Just like John and those who tortured him. Which is why I thought I'd introduce you.