There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
The Beatles, All You Need is Love
By Daniel Tarade
The concept of determinism has, at various points in my life, caused me immense distress. Simply put, adherents of determinism state that all effects arise from their respective causes. This may be easily appreciated when observing classical mechanics in action, i.e. billiards. However, the consequences reach further than that. If one accepts that the motion of one billiards ball results from it being struck by another with a particular momentum at a particular angle, then perhaps one should accept that the same processes govern human behaviour. The concept of determinism in relation to free will has been discussed at length and I will not re-hash the various arguments. Rather, I want to discuss the conversations that have emerged in Canada following a controversial ruling last year. Omar Khadr was a solider with Al-Qaeda who was detained for ten years at Guantanamo Bay following a firefight in Iraq. He stood accused of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier and was charged with war crimes. In turn, Khadr argued that his fundamental rights were violated and that, as a Canadian citizen, he was entitled to recourse from the Canadian government for its role in allowing America to torture and incarcerate him without trial for many years. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Khadr's charter rights were violated, which paved the way to a legal settlement with the Canadian government that paid out 10.5 million dollars in 2017, where the Canadian government officially apologized for its role in the torture of Khadr. Of course, any lucrative payout from the Canadian government will draw conversation but when the payout is made to an 'admitted' terrorist, the fallout can be divisive. The case of Omar Khadr was discussed from many angles.
Some arguments focused on whether Khadrr was a terrorist or ‘merely’ an enemy combatant, in which case, he should have been treated as a prisoner of war. Others focused on whether Canada was at fault for how Khadr was treated by the United States. A third focused on whether Khadr had actually thrown the grenade he was accused of throwing. However, the most interesting argument, to me, was focused on whether Khadr was culpable for his actions considering that he was only fifteen when the events took place. Further complicating matters, Khadr was enlisted with Al-Qaeda at an even younger age by his father, a known Al-Qaeda commander. A rally cry emerged. Khadir cannot be held responsible for actions as he was not an adult but rather a child soldier groomed by his father.
I am not a writer of any person's story. But let us imagine how the narrative would have emerged if Khadr was instead eighteen, twenty, or even thirty-five at the time of the firefight. Everything else in Khadr's past remains the same. In this hypothetical scenario, Khadr is wounded, captured, and accused of killing an American soldier but now is legally an adult. What would be the societal reaction to his incarceration, as a Canadian citizen, in Guantanamo Bay? The same allegations surrounding human rights violations could be levied. However, this is a broad argument that extends to all inmates of Guantanamo Bay. However, would people be as willing to forgive Khadr his actions? I contend that the discourse would be different. It might be noted that his actions sprung from how he was raised by his father. To this, a subset of individuals would counter by arguing that Khadr was old enough to know better. Is it fair to assume people raised in such environments, by such people, should be able to know better? What is the age at which it is safe to assume a person should know better, irrespective of their environment and conditioning? At one point is the switch flipped? Does the burden lie on the individual to rise above all of the challenges in their life or is the burden on society to alleviate these challenges and to instead be forgiving in instances where it fails to do so?
One might argue that I am not being charitable to the people who fiercely defended Khadr, that in reality they would be as sympathetic to the accused terrorist who was groomed as a child soldier. I disagree. Some who argue in defence of Omar Khadr instead paint his father, and others like him, as the monster. But I can't help but wonder whether Omar Khadr would himself have indoctrinated his children as Al-Qaeda supporters. Because who more likely to radicalize others than those who were radicalized themselves at such a young age. In light of this, I find the vilification of Omar Khadr's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, among those who champion Omar Khadr quite strange. I have not yet found someone who sought to understand Ahmed Khadr and why he acted the way he did. Perhaps he was also groomed from a young age. We do not need to agree with a person’s actions to recognize why they might have acted in a certain way.
But what of justice if we grant determinism a prominent role in discussion surrounding who we are, what we think, and how we behave. If we forgive everyone their actions, in recognition that their actions are determined by their surroundings and history, can there be justice? Perhaps that is justice.
The words of Mark Twain are perhaps appropriate (emphasis my own).
A sinner was but a sinner; Satan was just that, like the rest. What saves the rest? - their own efforts alone? No - or none might ever be saved. To their feeble efforts is added the mighty help of pathetic, appealing, imploring prayers that go up daily out of all the churches in Christendom and out of myriads upon myriads of pitying hearts. But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian's daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
-Mark Twain's Autobiography