Jan 07, 2019

No, the state does not have to rescue you from dumb decisions

I have known a lot of people who left Canada to teach English abroad (usually known as ESL – English as a Second Language). It is a great opportunity to make a little cash, see the world, immerse yourself in a different culture and pass on a skill that can make a difference in another person’s life. Given the demand for a global language like English, the possibilities of where to go are almost endless.

Well, not completely endless I would submit. I wager that going to an area run by a terrorist group would be a poor choice. Not only is supporting terrorism a bad idea – even if you claim to be an ESL teacher – but you risk getting killed in an air or drone strike or in a ground operation. I’d go with plan B on this one.

That is exactly NOT what 34-year old Warren Christopher Clark from Houston decided to do. He was apparently already teaching English in Saudi Arabia then in Turkey before he – incredibly – wrote a letter to the ‘Director’ of the Islamic State (IS) in which he stated (thanks to the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi for breaking this story):

“Dear Director, I am looking to get a position teaching English to students in the Islamic State. I believe that a successful teacher can understand a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and is able to use that understanding to help students build on their understanding of the English language.”

He was captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in an operation in northern Syria. His fate is yet to be determined although I would bet the US charges him with aiding and abetting IS, a charge that will get him a very long prison sentence. For the record, his father is defending his son as a ‘humanitarian’ who does not ‘have an evil thought in his mind about hurting anyone.’ To cite the Knight Templar in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mr. Clark “chose poorly”. He is now in a heap of hurt.

There are also two Canadians who find themselves in hot water over poor choices. Edith Blais is believed to have been kidnapped in western Burkina Faso by unknown assailants while traveling with a companion. The pair set out for Togo despite clear Global Affairs Canada (GAC) warnings to avoid all non-essential travel  due to the threat of terrorism, including all travel in the area bordering Togo due to the risk of banditry and kidnapping. The government is doing what it can to locate and assist her.

In yet another case, a BC man, Kristian Lee Baxter, has not been heard from since December 1 when he was believed to be in Lebanon near the border with Syria. He apparently wanted to enter Syria to ‘seek adventure’, despite clear GAC warnings to avoid ALL travel to that country (this advice has been in place since 2011). Isn’t there a book series called ‘Choose Your Adventure”? Looks like Mr, Baxter sure did.

Both cases illustrate the dangers that arise from dumb choices. What Canada can do to help is limited at the best of times: we do not even have a diplomatic representation in Syria at present. Most Canadian offices abroad are quite small and we should not expect our diplomats to risk their own lives to save those who chose unwisely. While I do hope both Ms. Blais and Mr. Baxter make it back safely it is far from certain that they will.

When a government says AVOID ALL TRAVEL to a given land that should be taken seriously. These warnings are based on risk assessments and intelligence and are issued for a reason. When you elect to ignore them you are on your own, as you should be.

One last thing. I am happy to say that I now have a new category of foreign terrorist fighter. I’ve seen all kinds of rationales for going to join terrorist groups in my career: fighter, supporter, bus driver, tea server and shoemaker. Now I have to add ESL teacher. Will wonders never cease?