Sympathising with Monsters – The David Hicks Case

February 23, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

It is a strange moment when you begin to feel compassion for someone whom you otherwise consider to be a moral monster. We ordinarily prefer our moral decision-making to be a fairly easy and straightforward process, yet such moments make this impossible. This is certainly the case when it comes to considering the now-exonerated, former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, David Hicks. The nature of his incarceration, the plea-deal he signed, the artificial legal case against him, all demand from us a semblance of sympathy – sympathy, that his support for terrorism makes unbearable.

From the outset, David Hicks was a prisoner, never a criminal. The extraordinary nature of his imprisonment seemed to entirely overshadow the evidence against him.

In large part, this was due to the ambiguity of the legal case against him. Despite the United States government struggling to establish a credible legal basis for its military tribunals, Hicks still found himself legally defined as an ‘enemy combatant’ and charged with the blanket offences of ‘conspiracy to attack civilians, aiding the enemy and attempted murder’. Charged as a criminal, yet without any foreseeable chance of a legal process, Hicks languished for five years in an administrative limbo.

As international pressure mounted, so did the desperation to secure convictions. In order to facilitate this, Congress passed the ‘Military Commissions Act’ in 2006, legislation that included the retroactive charge of ‘providing material support for terrorism’. The charges for which Hicks had been held without trial since 2001 were now dropped, and Hicks was convicted under this new provision in March 2007.

Worse still was Hicks’ treatment whilst in custody: Originally captured in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance in December 2001, Hicks was sold to the United States for a reported fee of between $1,000-5,000US. Despite this type of prisoner-transaction being commonplace at the time, it is certainly less than desirable when we are then being asked to believe the testimony of the capturing soldiers – soldiers who have effectively been paid to give evidence.

Regardless, David Hicks was quickly transferred to the now infamous Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where he claims to have been “subjected to five-and-a-half years of physical and psychological torture” – torture that included beatings, forced medication, sleep deprivation, and sexual assault.

The truth behind these claims of physical torture is questionable, especially considering that Hicks has himself admitted to cooperating immediately and completely with his captors. There is however no such doubt concerning his claims of psychological torture. To be held for five years in the type of conditions that are present at Guantanamo Bay certainly constitutes an immense psychological maltreatment.

Under these circumstances, the agreement that led to Hicks’ eventual guilty plea, was equivalent to signing a contract with a gun to your head. Hicks was offered a plea-deal whereby all but nine months of his sentence was back-dated to include time already spent in custody – and importantly, he would be repatriated to Australia in order to serve these remaining nine months under ordinary prison conditions. The alternative? Remain in a legal uncertainty at Guantanamo Bay, without the promise of a court date. Such a deal is so weighted towards securing a conviction, that it effectively removes any consideration of guilt, or lack thereof, from the equation – no person still interested in their own wellbeing could reasonably deny such an offer.

Now, after all this, David Hicks has had the conviction overturned by the ‘United States Court of Military Commission Review’.

After suffering such an immense legal injustice, David Hicks certainly deserves our sympathy. But only because all criminals, regardless of their crimes (terrorists included), ought to have access to a fair and open legal process. However, by any moral standard, it is also an injustice that Hicks is today a free man – he has not paid dearly enough for the crimes he committed.

Firstly, it is important to note that David Hicks was not exonerated due to the evidence against him not stacking-up on review. He was exonerated because the crime for which he was convicted simply did not exist at the time that he was committing it. Neither Australian, American, nor International Law had yet caught up with the reality of a new terrorist age. By ‘providing material support for terrorism’, Hicks was essentially ahead of his time – a criminal trend-setter. A technical defence explained by his Australian Lawyer, Stephen Kenny: “What he was doing there was not at that time illegal”.

So just what was he doing?

David Hicks travelled to Pakistan in 2000, where he joined the Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In his own words: “Three months training. After which it is my decision whether to cross the line of control into Indian occupied Kashmir”…” I learnt about weapons such as ballistic missiles, surface to surface and shoulder fired missiles, anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets, rapid fire heavy and light machine guns, pistols, AK47s, mines and explosives”. During his time with Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hicks has admitted to taking part in an attack on Indian troops, and to firing “hundreds of bullets” into Indian territory.

Hicks later turned up in Afghanistan, where he attended at least four separate al-Qaida training camps, during which he changed his name to “Muhammad Dawood”, and claims to have met with Osama bin Laden, referring to him as his “lovely brother”.

At the time of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Hicks was in the tribal regions of Northern Pakistan. Realising that America was about to invade, Hicks “armed himself with an AK-47 automatic rifle, ammunition, and grenades”, and crossed back into Afghanistan to help defend Taliban territory – he was arrested whilst guarding a tank near Kandahar airport.

Despite most of this evidence coming from his own admission, Hicks still maintains that he should not be considered a terrorist.

His defence for this period in his life?

On his time in Kashmir: “I participated in this exchange [of gunfire] under the orders and supervision of Captain Ali. We did not fire upon Indian soldiers or any other people. We only participated in the symbolic exchange of fire”. This “symbolic exchange of fire” killed not only Indian soldiers, but also two civilian children.

On his time at al-Qaida training camps: “I did not witness terrorist training, hear of terrorist activities, or any plans to commit acts of terror”. Rather, he filled his time by participating in “mostly sport oriented” activities, and by going on “lots of walks”. Are we meant to believe that Hicks spent his time with Osama bin Laden hiking and playing football?

On why he armed himself, and entered an active warzone in Afghanistan: “I left my passport and everything behind in Afghanistan”.

If this wasn’t so serious it would be laughable. This is Hicks trying to explain away his time in the company of three separate terrorist groups as “having a holiday”: an accidental tourist who in the words of his military lawyer, Major Michael Mori, was just “a little unlucky”.

Suppose we do what no reasonable person could, and give Hicks the benefit of the doubt by accepting this implausible narrative. Then what are we supposed to make of statements such as these, made by Hicks during his time abroad: “The only true Muslims are those fighting”, “the West is full of poison”, “The Jews have complete financial and media control”, “I am now very well trained for jihad in weapons, some serious like anti-aircraft missiles”, “Allah will use his servants to punish non-believers in this world”.

Still sound like an unlucky tourist?

Well, strangely enough, for many people – Yes!

How else are we to explain someone as prominent, and with so much to lose, as Opposition leader Bill Shorten, describing terrorism in this manner, and not suffering a public backlash: “David Hicks was probably foolish to get caught up in that Afghanistan conflict”.

Foolish! David Hicks directly contributed to the harm caused by three separate terrorist organisations – and for this, he is unrepentant. By this standard, the ISIS fighters currently decapitating prisoners in the Iraqi desert, Boko Haram’s decision to kidnap Nigerian school girls, and the gunmen who executed Charlie Hebdo employees, are just foolish?

This type of broken moral judgement is indicative of how public opinion seems to form in response to David Hicks. It is as if, otherwise-rational people are suddenly comfortable in accepting one of two depraved ideas: either David Hicks is a terrorist, and therefore no manner of ill-treatment is unjustified or, despite once being a terrorist, the ill-treatment Hicks received absolves him of all previous guilt and responsibility.

In either circumstance, our moral concern is reduced to a zero-sum exercise. For many people, it is hard to show compassion for Hicks without also ceding to him the moral high ground. It is just simpler to think of him in absolutes, that is, as either a terrorist or as a victim. David Hicks, however, is both: a moral monster who, nevertheless, deserves our sympathy.