It was 2000 when I first got to see Ezra Levant in action. he had just been hired on to the National Post editorial board, and the two of us were side-by-side cubicle neighbours. he did every telephone call in a booming Rush Limbaugh voice as if he were on the radio – even when he was just ordering pizza or complaining to his podiatrist. he talked to the mailroom guy that way, too. It’s just who he is.
Shortly after Levant arrived, a magazine called Alberta Report published a creepy article titled “Is this Kosher?” – in which a senior editor (non-ironically) quoted an oddball Ukrainian nationalist who insisted that kosher food labelling in Canada is a “Jewish tax,” and that kosher labels send a “secret message” to fellow Jews.
Alberta Report (which is now defunct) published some weird stuff in its day. But before blogs, before Twitter, before the National Post, before Sun TV, the Report was actually considered a leading voice of Canadian conservatism. Levant, an out-and-proud Jew in an ideological movement that was then dominated mostly by cowboys and Christians, was outraged. As I pretended to fiddle with some editorial or other in the next cubicle, I listened to him work the phone, calling everyone he knew in the media, savaging Alberta Report. At first, the magazine stonewalled him. But in the end, he got his way. The editor printed a rebuttal, and even admitted publicly that publishing the Jew-tax article had been dumb.
It was a case study in the kind of – I’m not sure what to call it: activism? journalism? entertainment? – that Ezra Levant has perfected over the last decade or so. His credo is attack, attack, attack – until your opponent gets booted out of office (the “Libranos,” Ezra’s target when he published The Western Standard), checkmates you with libel notices (George Soros), or becomes an utter laughingstock (the Alberta Human Rights Commission). In terms of what he’s accomplished, Ezra Levant might just be the most successful Canadian activist of his generation, even if he doesn’t have the international name-recognition of Naomi Klein and the Kielburgers. Every single human-rights mandarin in the country now renders his judgments in the full knowledge that a single loony pro-complainant decision will land him a starring role in one of Levant’s Sun TV monologues. on the subject of “ethical oil,” Levant (and his 2011 book of the same name) has almost singlehandedly tipped the terms of debate against the environmentalists.
But there’s a problem with Levant’s epichate-on approach, which has become apparent now that he’s got an hour a day to fill as a Sun TV host: Whether he’s bashing the CBC, Occupy protestors, or David Suzuki, his style of attack is so obsessional that it sometimes seems like a manifestation of clinical mental illness. Last year, for instance, he devoted days on end to excoriating Chiquita Bananas for some half-imagined slight against the oilsands – which culminated with a crazed Ezra (I am not making this up) telling the company’s VP, in Spanish, and on air, to go have sex with his mother.
Even when Ezra isn’t yelling chinga tu madre, his rottweiler style demands that he reduce his enemies to detested caricatures: priggish censors, brain-dead bureaucrats, naïve tree-huggers. he does this better than anyone. even Limbaugh himself could learn a thing or two from Levant. But when it comes to an intellectual endeavour that actually requires intellectual sophistication and nuance – say, a full-length book about the legal treatment of a captured Canadian child-soldier – Levant stumbles. on camera, he can paper over his logical lapses with demagoguery and charm. on paper, it’s more difficult.
Omar Khadr drank in the culture of jihad the way other children drink in their mother’s breast milk – from infancy. he spent much of his childhood traipsing around Pakistan, following his father – Ahmed Khadr, a highranking Egyptian-Canadian mujahadeen financier – meeting al-Qaeda leaders and learning the terrorist arts. according to published al-Qaeda lore, “tossing his little child in the furnace of the battle” was Ahmed Khadr’s plan for Omar – and Omar himself was eager to please those around him. on July 27, 2002, the 15-year-old Omar found himself in an Afghan village compound under siege by American troops. during the battle, Omar may or may not have killed U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer with a grenade before losing consciousness and becoming a U.S. prisoner. The United Nations considers him a child soldier – just like the children abducted into a life of murder by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and by Joseph Kony in Uganda. yet at Guantanamo Bay, Khadr was prosecuted and convicted by a U.S. military commission for war crimes committed as a minor – the first person to suffer that fate since the second World War.
No matter which side they take on Omar Khadr, most reasonable observers would agree that the case is complex. Omar was (and perhaps remains) a full-blown convert to al-Qaeda’s ideology of martyrdom and mass murder. Ezra is right about that. Then again, he was barely old enough to shave, and knew little of the world except what his hardcore jihadi parents and their terrorist friends had told him. And for all the hair-splitting about “unlawful” combatants and the like, the fact remains that Khadr was captured in what was plainly a battlefield confrontation. he didn’t blow up a suicide vest in a bus or coffee shop: he engaged advancing American troops in a four-hour fight with guns and grenades. The question of whether he can be trusted to live freely in Canada or any other Western society, or whether he deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars, is therefore a complicated question.
But not to Levant. When the two of us were recording a podcast together a few years ago, he told our audience that the Americans should have just killed Khadr on the spot – as was done with pirates in the age of corsairs and cutlasses.
Now, Levant has stretched out his hatred of this onetime child soldier to book length. In The Enemy within: Terror, Lies and the Whitewashing of Omar Khadr, he cuts through all the complex questions of law, morality and battlefield typology the only way he knows how: by transforming his target into a comic-book villain. In fact, much of The Enemy within reads like a sort of schoolboy fantasy, in which Levant imagines Khadr growing up to become a sort of Islamist version of Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, stroking a pussycat as he plots world domination.
According to Levant, the “bloodthirsty” Khadr is “every bit as demented as Paul Bernardo, Canada’s infamous schoolgirl killer.” The killing of Sgt. Speer, we learn, was merely the opening act in Khadr’s “plan to become a high-ranking international terrorist.” A few pages later, Levant claims (on no evidence) that Khadr “envisioned himself rising to the very top” of al-Qaeda and (again, no evidence) that “his ambition was to become an even bigger, more brutal Godfather than his dad.”
Following on a metaphor-per-page pace, Levant also informs us that Khadr’s “martial arts” knowledge and “deadly accurate” weapons skills made him “the James Bond of Jihad.” not to mention “the prince of al-Qaeda,” “the biggest, smartest, most deadly fish in a pond teeming with the most vicious, depraved men on Earth,” and then, returning to the world of Ian Fleming, a “degenerate Agent 007,” who “gave himself a licence to kill Americans and Jews.” Whole chapters of this thin book are stuffed with this sort of BoysFavorite-Adventure-Stories nonsense – and the sheer repetition of it makes the act of reading feel like a waste of time.
Until you get to Chapter 12, “Khadr’s Homecoming,” in which Levant imagines what things will be like if Canadian civil libertarians get their way, and Omar is sent to Canada as a free man. Here, suddenly, Levant hits his stride.
“A free man, he’ll have a career waiting for him here in Canada as a top speaker on the anti-American lecture circuit,” he writes. “[There] will be a race with hard-left universities – to be the first to award Omar Khadr an honorary doctorate degree. [And] if the CBC isn’t already planning a reality show around Omar Khadr and what they’d surely call his ‘struggles’ to adapt back into Canadian society, it’s because they’re not quick on the uptake.” this is Ezra at his best. no Canadian writer on the right is better at getting inside the head of the Justin Trudeau set, and satirizing the pieties that reside therein.
And then the money line: “As [Khadr] is travelling the country for all his speaking tours, media appearances and awards, how many Canadians will be forced to share an airplane ride with the committed al-Qaeda terrorist? There’s nothing right now that would stop the avowed jihadi from boarding the same Air Canada flight as you and your family, nor from loitering outside synagogues and Hebrew schools.”
Damn it if I didn’t read that line, put the book down, and say to myself, “Holy crap – he’s right.” what would I do if Khadr sat down next to me on a flight? what would any of us do?
Typical Canadian that I am, I’d probably sit there, strapped in, praying the plane wouldn’t blow up, reminding myself not to be Islamophobic. I might even make small talk with Khadr about the in-flight entertainment to show him how enlightened I am. “Modern Family – ever watch it at Gitmo? oh man. It’s hilarious.”
I know what Ezra would do. He’d get up from his seat and stage a public freakout, just like he did all those years ago when Alberta Report ran the Jew-Tax article. he might even grab the in-flight mic and give a speech to the whole plane before getting kicked off and writing a long article about it. The whole thing would probably end up on YouTube.
It would be garish and crass – and Ezra probably would milk it too long. But in the process, he’d say a few things that many of us think, or should think, but never end up saying. Just like in his new book.
I just wish I didn’t have to wait 12 chapters for him to say it.