I've been on for some time about citizenship and its attendant obligations: essentially, being a citizen carries responsibilities as well as rights. Several previous posts have gone into that in a fair bit of detail. (By no means am I suggesting that those are the last word on the subject; as always, whatever I argue here is intended, more than anything else, to spur dialogue. Healthy democracies require several things, not the least of which is discursive and civic engagement.)
That said, the tragic and infuriating saga surrounding Omar Khadr brings the corollary into sharp relief. In brief, it's the rather obvious truth that citizenship also confers certain rights, not the least of which is that you get to count on your government to look out for you. If citizens have responsibilities, then so do governments, and what could be more fundamental than any government's obligation to safeguard the rights and interests of its citizens?
The circumstances surrounding Omar Khadr and how he came to find himself in front of a U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay are all pretty well common knowledge. Regardless of his religious and political beliefs and his family background, he is a Canadian citizen and as such he is entitled to expect the Government of Canada to come to his assistance with whatever legal and diplomatic resources it can muster.
That the government of Stephen Harper can simply blow off its obligations in this regard is perhaps the most appalling part. Never mind the dubious and nebulous "illegal combatant" status under which he and other prisoners at Guantanamo are being detained. Never mind the overarching context for all of this, namely the U.S. government's ill-starred imperial misadventure in Afghanistan. Never mind the shabby, racist and Islamophobic political calculus underlying the Harper government's conduct. How can a government of any political stripe blithely and arrogantly shrug off its responsibilities like this and not suffer lasting and fatal political damage?
Since when does a democratic government get to pick and choose which of its obligations it has to honour?
Since when does a democratic government get to pick and choose which of its citizens it stands up for? As Alex Himelfarb argues,
What matters here is that basic rights, the legal rights of one of our citizens, are being denied. These legal rights are about protecting us and our liberty from the intrusive and coercive power of the state. We are all in trouble here – wherever we sit on the political continuum – if any one of our citizens is denied the right of a fair and just process when their liberty is at stake. When this happens, the value of our common citizenship is diminished.In truth, it's depressing as hell that we even have to go through this. It's like having to explain first principles all over again, when any informed and thoughtful conversation should – must, in fact – be based on mutually agreed-upon ground rules. Further evidence, I'd submit, of just how far the goal posts have been moved, ethically, legally and politically.
This diminishes us all. I don't mean to sound sententious, but it's hard to believe that any polity can sustain this much vandalism to its moral fabric and not lose something of its soul.