Afghan Prisoners

Prime Minister Harper  has prorogued Parliament, supposedly to work on his post-recovery budget. That’s one story. His. Others say that he wishes to avoid discussion of the fact – surely now accepted fact – that Canadian forces in Afghanistan turn over captured terrorists to Afghan authorities, who mistreat them. Well, torture them.

Mr. Harper says that the majority of Canadians are not overly concerned about the fate of captured Afghan terrorists. Perhaps true. But so what? A minority is vitally concerned. A group of some seventy Canadian political scientists, political philosophers, and law professors are organizing a declaration of opposition to the Prime Minister; they argue that the prorogation of Parliament is high-handed; it demeans Parliament and is the more offensive because done to avoid the torture issue.

How concerned should Canadians be?

Why do we turn over prisoners to the Afghan police and Afghan forces? First: the Afghans are our allies. Second: it is one of our objectives to build up Afghanistan’s institutions for protecting Afghan citizens. Canada will leave the country at some point. Dealing with crooks and terrorists will be the responsibility of Afghans. Sooner or later superintendence has to cease. Better sooner. Superintendence is patronizing; it saps confidence, and perverts the development of that very sense of responsibility that we mean to promote.

But yes, our own principles are compromised when prisoners are tortured.  Our consciences are offended. They should be. We expect allies of the West to conform to Western standards. Or at least not to offend Western standards in blatantly outrageous fashion.

That’s where we stand with respect to our Afghan allies and our own consciences.

Let’s look at the matter from the Afghan perspective. Afghans must wonder why the West has such tender feelings about men who are implacably hostile to the Canadian forces; suicide bombers careless of civilian lives, willing to let die the defenseless children of their own Afghan society, men who hope to introduce a regime that endangers and demeans all Western values, including rejection of torture. Men who are intent on training murderers to penetrate Western society in order to kill us – Canadians, in our own country, you and me, the ordinary, indifferent citizens of the West!

Is that my last word?

It’s a dirty-hands problem. And in dirty-hand problems there is no one right answer. There are two wrong answers. Picking the right wrong answer is a job for a prudent man or woman. In the situation I describe who is the prudent person?

It is Mr. Harper. I have the advantage here; I have seen the list of seventy names. (If all goes as expected their statement and names will be in the newspapers early next week.) I know many of them. You do too. They are our colleagues, most of them senior colleagues. And they are good people. But are they prudent? Prudent enough? With reluctance, I say, No.

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2 Responses to “Afghan Prisoners”


  1. 1 Gordon January 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t understand. Why is it “prudent” to shut down a Parliamentary investigation into alleged complicity with Afghan torture?

    Canadians were told (and many probably believed) that we were in Afghanistan to promote “human dignity”.

    Now, it seems that senior cabinet ministers knew all along that “human dignity” was not going to come to Afghanistan any time soon. The real aim of the mission was to replace thuggish Al-Quaeda sympathizers with thuggish drug lords who, while equally cruel to their own people, would not harbour terrorists.

    That might have been tough for “soft” Canadians to hear, so the gov’t had to dress the mission up as having a genuine “do-gooder” component.

    So, is it really imprudent for Canadians’ to know the truth? Or is Stephen Harper a “noble liar”?

  2. 2 Marcos Paulo Reis January 9, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Good Morning Professor Ajzenstat,

    Canada seems to find herself in a dangerous situation indeed if the bearers of enlightenment thought see nothing worrisome about the attitude of the current Canadian government.

    Enlightenment rose as an answer to the first dark ages, a time when freedom (of dissent, of speech, etc) was a privilege for a selected few. The clergy and the aristocrats controlled the core aspects of the polis and richness were made not by work but by connections, marriage into families and by having friends in high places.

    In the dark ages, dissent was met with furious indignation, questioning was seen as disloyalty and “toeing the line” was the only way to secure the favour of the ruling class.

    It seems to me ironic, to see a standard bearer of the enlightenment, characterizing the actions of the Canadian government as “prudent”. A government that harasses civil servants when they do not “toe the line”, that fire civil servants who dare to voice their dissent, that a little over a year ago had released an economic update that would bankrupt the opposition parties and virtually strangle the opposition parties’ capabilities to dissent.

    If that was not enough, now the Canadian government decides to shutdown Parliament to avoid being questioned by the duly elected representatives of the sovereign people.

    If one believes in popular sovereignty, it is troublesome to see the Canadian people being denied its basic freedom to question its own government, the freedom to challenge its positions and inquire about its actions. It seems to me that we have arrived at a modern dark age.

    “Locke depicts Parliament as the supremely representative institution; Parliament – and only Parliament – represents all who are subject to its edicts, all interests and shades of political opinion, and for this reason only Parliament has the authority to ratify political measures.” The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament, Janet AJzenstat, page 185.

    “Parliamentary democracy was designed expressly to give individuals, groups, and parties the right to voice political disapproval and to bring that disapproval home in concrete fashion by ousting the decision makers. It thus allows and encourages political disagreement and keeps alive the dissenters’ hopes and their sense of efficacy”. The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament, Janet AJzenstat, page 192.

    Canadian reversal of the gains from the Glorious Revolution can soon be made complete. Mister Harper has but to declare himself governor general next year. With that he takes possession of the Great Seal of Canada, then he can declare that our Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in being always absent from Canada, has failed with her responsibilities to the Canadian people and therefore abdicated the throne. Give her the same fate as King James II.

    The Inglorious Reversal would be then fulfilled. Mister Harper would then, like Oliver Cromwell before him, summon his musketeers and close Parliament for good. Our darkness will then be complete.

    Hail, Stephen Harper Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of Canada.

    Marcos Paulo Reis


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