The Enemy Within: Terror, Lies and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr
McClelland & Stewart (2011) 250 pages
Reviewed by Bob Tarantino
Ezra Levant’s third book in three years continues his streak as Canada’s premier conservative polemicist. Though sometimes regarded pejoratively, the aggressive disputation of a controversial topic is a valuable part of political discourse. Polemics distil warring positions to their sometimes ugly essence. They serve to rally adherents to the cause while simultaneously enraging opponents. Within those parameters, The Enemy Within: Terror, Lies and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr represents a zenith, of sorts, for Levant’s written endeavours. The book is perhaps best understood as Levant’s attempt to deliver a prosecutor’s brief. The fact that it is being delivered to the public not only after Khadr’s defenders have made their case, but after a verdict has been rendered is simply in keeping with the often outlandish story of Omar Khadr.
When assessing Levant’s books, two aspects of their context are important to understand. First, Levant is, for good or ill, virtually sui generis on Canadian bookshelves. Canadian political publishing has tended to consist of serial books by progressive writers such as Linda McQuaig and David Suzuki – conservatives could claim no voice comparable in terms of volume of output, audience size or media presence. The paucity of conservative political writing was particularly striking in comparison to the United States, where the likes of Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and David Frum traded volleys with Michael Moore, Al Franken and Glenn Greenwald. The second contextual element is that conservative politics of Ezra’s vintage was marinated in a finely-honed sense of grievance, against a liberal media and a Liberal government which dominated Canadian politics from 1993 through 2006. Conditioned by years of sneering dismissal, turnabout is difficult to begrudge. In the wrong hands, at the wrong times, robust conservatism can come across as shrill, even bug-eyed. The Enemy Within avoids that fate by being almost clinical in its presentation. A reader of Levant’s previous works or a viewer of his Sun News Network show, both of which generally display at least hints of a sly sense of humour, may be surprised to read the sober, even grim, tone of this book.
At its best, Ezra’s public persona and output is akin to performance art: the unrelenting and unflinching assertion of conservative (or at least anti-progressive) positions, delivered with an almost gleeful lack of concern for the sensitivities of his opponents. His delivery, as much as his arguments, threatens to drive those on the other side of the political divide into frothing fury. The story of Omar, prodigal son of Canada’s al Qaeda-cheering Khadr family, the killing of U.S. army medic Christopher Speer and Omar’s subsequent imprisonment and treatment at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, his confession and pending release to Canada’s care, may be the most divisive topic in Canadian politics. Even if it is not, little common ground exists between those who view Omar as a tortured man-child whose purported abandonment by the Canadian government ranks as among the most grievous injustices of the last decade and those who would have preferred that the enthusiastic young al Qaeda soldier had been left to die on the battlefield and who richly deserved whatever befell him subsequently. These two sets of people stare at each other in horrified bafflement, across a chasm of incomprehension arising from incompatible value sets.
Levant writes a book designed to speak to and for the first group and to drive the second group into fits. He lays out a series of arguments from which he concludes that nothing untoward has been done to Omar Khadr. Quoting extensively from Omar’s confession, Levant describes Khadr as a cold-blooded, highly-trained murderer, a “gangster” who relishes his recollections of the killing of Sgt. Speer. Levant dismisses the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to Khadr’s detention. He chides the Canadian news media for focusing on Khadr and ignoring Sgt. Speer and his widow – an inversion of the usual coverage approach used when discussing alleged killer and victim. Swatting away arguments that Khadr is a child soldier, Levant asserts that a fifteen year-old murderer in Canada would be tried and imprisoned, not released and celebrated. Sneering at the conventional media view that Guantanamo Bay is a “gulag”, Levant chronicles the first-class medical treatments, the halal-certified lasagne and hamburger meals, the movie nights, the ping-pong tables, the libraries, the video games – even the magazines, comic books, cologne and Skechers sneakers requested by Omar and provided by Canadian government officials. He rejects out of hand any assertion that Khadr was “tortured”, regardless of what definition one uses for that term. Along the way Levant chronicles the nearly demented musings of some Canadian pundits who describe Khadr as a hero, even a Nelson Mandela-like figure.
In response, someone could point out that the Geneva Convention is not the only international treaty governing Khadr’s treatment, or that relying on the confession of an individual held in a detention facility for years without trial may be subject to at least some qualifications. One might cavil that a more judicious account would express at least some scepticism about the assessments of psychiatrists or the predictions of intelligence agencies. You could argue that Levant’s presentation of Khadr’s case lacks much nuance. But Levant’s ignoring of those points, his obdurate insistence on not even paying lip service to conventional wisdom about Khadr is so brazen as to indicate an agenda quite different from that of the journalist. Criticizing Levant for a lack of subtlety is akin to faulting a defence lawyer for not admitting his client is actually kind of guilty – it misses the point of what he is trying to accomplish.
It is therefore to be expected that The Enemy Within suffers from characteristics typical of its genre. Levant adopts a declarative voice, offering little or no engagement with the actual arguments advanced by others; while notable only because Canadians are unused to such an approach originating from Levant’s political perspective, the one-sided treatment remains regrettable. Nor should The Enemy Within be mistaken for a forensic analysis of its topic. A relatively short book, aside from quotations obtained from Khadr’s confession and the “Opinion on Dangerousness” delivered at Khadr’s trial by Dr. Michael Welner, it relies almost entirely on second-hand sources with relatively little original research.
That reveals that one of the tenets underlying Levant’s outrage is based on a bit of a conceit: though most pundits rely on the assertion, “the media” is not monolithic; indeed, almost all of Levant’s Khadr-damning facts come from the same news coverage that Levant blasts as being blind to Khadr’s true nature. Therein lies the biggest missed opportunity in the book: The Enemy Within never recounts Levant asking other people why they feel the way they do about Khadr. The book would have been measurably improved by an interview with even one of the journalists, like the Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard, whose pro-Khadr stance Levant so vigorously assaults.
Even with those faults, however, the book can be occasionally bracing. Levant completely defenestrates the comically hypocritical and self-serving positions of the Liberal Party and the Canadian Bar Association, the lawyers’ trade association which only discovered its passion for Omar Khadr once Stephen Harper’s government had taken power in 2006. His criticism extends across party lines: he excoriates the Harper government’s surprising decision to make arrangements for Khadr’s early release and return to Canada, circumventing the verdict of the military commission jury that Khadr be imprisoned for forty years. One of the most inventive moments in the book is Levant’s crafting of a way in which the Minister of Public Safety can still prevent Khadr returning to Canada. (The current minister, Vic Toews, may just be ornery enough to take Levant’s advice.)
The Enemy Within is unlikely to change many minds about Omar Khadr or his treatment – which is fine, since the topic is not one about which people are inclined to re-think their positions. Not every book needs to be designed to persuade the undecided. Sometimes it is enough – more than enough – to provide a robust testament to your own positions and to the mendacity of your opponents.
Bob Tarantino is a Toronto lawyer and contributes regularly to C2C Journal.