This looks a little like the flag but these bars actually cover up a poem by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantanamo Diary. Sometimes the redactions in this work appear to concern details of military interrogation programs and the people who carry them out, but at other times, like this, they are harder to fathom. I suspect the poem was blacked out because the censor couldn’t be quite sure what it meant.
Slahi is a Mauritanian held at Guantanamo Bay. He turned himself over to Mauritanian authorities for questioning in 2001 and was illegally rendered, as they say, to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally our base in Cuba. Slahi took part somehow in the war in Afghanistan against the Communists, when, to speak very loosely, jihadis were still good guys in our book. Unfortunately for him, the situation had changed by 1999, when he admits to discussing his experiences with people who were later linked to the 9/11 attacks. In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released on habeas grounds, but he remains imprisoned pending some sort of appeal. He has never been charged in court, but to the extent that there is a legal case against him, it appears to hang on those discussions of training in Afghanistan, which could be characterized as recruiting. For different reasons, most people, including Slahi, don’t care to dwell on other admissions resulting from enhanced interrogation or torture.
In 2005, Slahi wrote what would become Guantanamo Diary; it was published, in censored form and after heavy litigation, in 2015. In that sense it’s an important new book, but the fact that Slahi is still in jail makes it seem horrifyingly long in coming. They say the book is a bestseller, but if it is, it’s not the kind people talk about much. It’s not easy to write about; I’m afraid that I’m being over scrupulous about a topic that should occasion a lot more outrage or something. It’s an interesting bind. One might have hoped that a book like this wouldn’t exist in a powerful, law abiding society. And indeed there are all kinds of ways to explain it away: There are arguments that downplay the violations of human rights and emphasize the threats that we face. I think a lot of those arguments boil down to that of Thrasymachus in the Republic, not to be taken lightly, that justice is the advantage of the stronger.
Yet not only does the book exist, it’s much better than one would expect, even darkly entertaining. Slahi complains as much of the obtuseness and haplessness of his interrogators as of the barbarities they committed. It is all of a piece: Investigators, admittedly working under tremendous pressure under hostile circumstances entirely different from an ordinary law enforcement action, refused to face up to the paucity of what they were actually turning up on some of these people. Slahi was tortured in many ways. The thing that shocked me the most was when he off handedly remarked that they were moving him around so that they could torture him and claim he hurt himself in transit. It shocked me because this is exactly what police in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other American cities have been (plausibly) accused of doing. What goes on in Guantanamo is not really foreign.
Much of the book is devoted to characterizations of Slahi’s guards and interrogators, and his sometimes warm relations with them. They watched movies together, some taught him English, some would discuss theology. Slahi asked for extra time to study a movie of Henry V, and complains privately that the Star Wars novels he was given weren’t very well written. More than anything else, this book shows the reader the irrational expectations that we have for people who are subject to our suspicion. We persist in treating prisoners in immoral and counterproductive ways because we expect them to be submissive, to be afraid of justice, to be both stupid and cunning. We expect them not to show partiality for their countrymen and their fellow prisoners, because surely most of them are bad. All I can say is that there have to be better ways of learning about the things that trouble us.
“See it, do it” is a motto I’ve been repeating lately. It means don’t chat about what needs to get done, don’t put it on a list, but do it. It applies to household chores but it applies to reading as well. I won’t stop making lists of books, but I do hope to be more decisive in picking up important books of the moment and in coming away with books to actually work on for all the time I spend standing in the stacks gawping. I hope to usher in a new year of better blogging, but the motto also applies to this book. I should probably spend months digging into the background of Guantanamo Diary and seeking out the reviews and official reaction; maybe I will get around to it and even post, but these are my thoughts.
Coming up: Magnitogorsk