- "Can the university stand for peace?"Omar Khadr, Higher Education, and the Question of Hospitality
I. Encore un effort!
We must work and insist and repeat and invent and never give up.—Hélène Cixous, Perpetual Peace Project
"Can the university stand for peace?" My colleague, Susan Searls Giroux, asks this heart-ravishing question in an illuminating book that focuses on the charged nexus of race, pedagogy, and postsecondary education in the United States (2010, 21).1 From out of her provocation tumble many more queries, and it is in that interrogative spirit that I want to proceed here before turning to the case of the Canadian child-soldier, Omar Khadr, whose tortuous [End Page 283] decadelong incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, in violation of international law, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, raises compelling issues about both the ethical obligations of public universities in a time of war and how students might respond to those responsibilities. Where does the university stand, today and tomorrow, when democratic jurisprudence and human decency are not only abandoned but also impudently shown to be disposable, as precarious and vulnerable to injury as the casualties of war? Giroux's question obliges the university to reckon and to self-reckon with the gravest problems of military modernity and to face up to what Judith Butler calls "the fundamental sociality of embodied life, the ways in which we are… implicated in lives that are not our own" (2004, 28).
In the United States, we are currently witnessing youth-led protests regarding gun violence on a scale not seen since the peace marches of the Vietnam War. In Gaza, young men and women implore a haughty military superpower to hear their pleas. Under sniper fire, they are forced to fight for their lives with whatever they have to hand. Too often, all that they have at the border, if in fact it is a border, is who they are—which is both everything and very little. As Henry Siegman observes, writing in the wake of the recent killings, "What Israel's military restores when it quells Palestinian protests is not law and order, but illegality and oppression" (2018, 17). I would add that it matters a great deal that those protesters are mostly youth and that "illegality and oppression" are not so much masked by claims of acting in the name of "law and order" as decisive expressions of its lethal force, its capacity to organize a single, heterogeneous territory into a protected homeland and several exposed death zones. When we turn to the case of Omar Khadr in the second part of this essay, we will see how the Canadian government, given a strong "law and order" mandate by the electorate, abandoned one of its own citizens to the predations of the U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay—a space of legalized illegality and state-sponsored statelessness if there ever was one. In states of exception, whether in Cuba or Gaza or the streets of American cities, the law can choose to withdraw its protection, actively and frankly instituting lawlessness rather than slyly covering for it (Agamben 2003). Where does the university stand regarding these unforgiving realms where [End Page 284] youth in particular suffer and perish? Where does the university stand regarding the youth who ask not to be killed or let die, whether by torture or sniper bullets or by the myriad ways that, for example, successive Israeli regimes have starved Palestinians of their future: lack of water, food, electricity, health care, employment, or schooling? Students and youth loudly object to being cast into unlivable worlds of armed violence and the war against thought over which they have (yet) no control and for which they are deemed to be expendable. Why are those acts of dissent such a scandal to some? The protestors' vulnerability to overwhelming aggression says a very great deal; their wounded and woundable bodies constitute an incarnate demonstration, a demand for peace, in excess of their already articulate pleas for specific forms of political justice. My hope is that the universities are listening...