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Child Soldiers and Demonization

by Dan Gardner

Sitting in the gloom of a movie theatre years ago, I heard a woman in a nearby seat hiss with angry righteousness, "finally!" The movie we were watching was Saving Private Ryan.

The scene this woman found so satisfying was the murder of a prisoner of war.

I've often thought of that strange moment during the long debate about Omar Khadr.

Now a young man, Khadr was born into a family of religious bigots headed by a domineering, violent fanatic.

After a childhood spent mostly in Pakistan, where his father was increasingly involved with terrorists, Omar was taken to live with the death-cult known as al-Qaeda. He was 11 years old.

In July, 2002, American forces surrounded an al-Qaeda compound. They pounded it from the air, then attacked. It is alleged that a gravely wounded Khadr threw a grenade that killed an American soldier. He was 15 years old.

It is obvious and undeniable that Omar Khadr's childhood was saturated with hatred and mad indoctrination. It is obvious and undeniable that he had no control over any part of that childhood.

It is possible, I suppose, that he could have fled after the invasion of Afghanistan but is a 15-year-old boy responsible if he stays and fights?

They never have been. In country after country, 15-year-olds under arms -- including those who have committed far worse acts than Omar Khadr -- have been deemed child soldiers.

They are considered victims and offered rehabilitation. We feel only pity for them.

A memoir called A Long Way Gone, written by a former child soldier named Ishmael Beah, spent the better part of a year on the New York Times bestseller list.

The injustice done to Omar Khadr seems manifest. Inarguable. And yet a great many Canadians don't see anything wrong with his treatment.

Quite the contrary. With angry righteousness, they demand he be convicted and condemned. Like that woman watching Saving Private Ryan, they want to hiss "finally!"

Early on in Steven Spielberg's classic film, an American platoon wipes out a German machine gun nest. After one of their comrades bleeds to death, the American soldiers threaten to kill a terrified German prisoner. A young American -- a translator -- pleads with the captain to intervene.

He does. Unable to deal with the burden of a prisoner, the captain blindfolds the German and orders him to find an Allied unit and surrender. One of the American soldiers complains that he's more likely to find the Wehrmacht and start fighting again. The scene ends.

In the film's final battle, the translator is paralysed with fear. Cowering in a shell hole, he finds himself looking at a line of Germans firing on the fracturing American lines.

He sees the former prisoner. He watches as the German aims and fires at the very man who spared his life. The captain dies.

Shortly after, the air force arrives and the German position crumbles. The translator leaps up from the shell hole and orders the Germans to surrender. They do. The American glares at the former prisoner who shot the captain. The German smiles weakly and says the American's name. The American fires.

It was this act the woman near me found so satisfying.

And she wasn't alone. The film is clearly crafted to produce the sense that, finally, the coward did what was right. It is one of the most obscene moral inversions ever to appear in a film and yet it sparked no controversy. Apparently, few people saw anything wrong.

This blindness is explained, in part, by demonization. In Saving Private Ryan, the Germans are a faceless enemy. And since we come to the film knowing what the German military is fighting for -- Nazism and the Holocaust -- we don't see individual men. We see a hated enemy.

It's also crucial that the only perspective offered is that of the American platoon.

What happened to the German prisoner after he was first released? Whether or not he tried to find an Allied unit as ordered, he found himself back with the German army. What was he to say then? That he had promised not to fight again? That he'd like to please sit this one out? We would not expect an American in similar circumstances to do that. And a German who did would have been put in front of a firing squad.

Is it a crime that the former prisoner shot an American soldier in combat? No. Nor is there any suggestion he knew the American in his sights was the man who had saved him from being murdered -- which would be absurd given the chaos and confusion -- so there can be no claim of moral obligation.

But the audience never considers the German's perspective, only the Americans'. And from that perspective, this is a man killing someone who spared his life -- which makes his subsequent murder feel just.

When I read the passionate arguments of those who defend the treatment of Omar Khadr, I see the same demonization and narrow perspective. The result is the same moral inversion: What should be plainly unjust becomes what justice plainly demands.

Only this is no movie.

Dan Gardner writes for the Citizen Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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