Book Commentary: “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

This book has the potential to reshape the way you think about American justice.

To start, some quick Latin:

The U.S. Constitution contains the concept of habeas corpus. In short, it protects people from illegal detention, by allowing someone who’s imprisoned to bring the question of their imprisonment to a court. In other words, the state has to be able to prove there’s a good reason someone’s imprisoned. When the state suspends habeas corpus, as the U.S has done in wartime throughout history, the state suddenly has the ability to keep someone in custody without finding them guilty of a crime– or even charging them with one.

Imprisonment without a charge is what the U.S. has done to Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of Guantanamo Diary. The book chronicles his journey from voluntarily driving over to the police station in his native Mauritania for questioning in 2001, and the U.S.-orchestrated detention that flew him to various prisons until arriving at Guantanamo in 2002, and being kept there to this day– all without ever being charged with a crime.

Mohammedou Ould Slahi

Mohammedou Ould Slahi

He finished writing this diary back in 2005, but it took years of litigation by the ACLU for the U.S. Government to release his words to the public. Even then, the government redacted at least a few words on almost every page in the book, and, in a few passages, redacted several entire pages at a time.

Guantanamo Diary pages

Pages of the book typically have several redactions.

Guantanamo Diary

Two of several fully-redacted pages.

A ruling in 2010 cleared Slahi for release. However, President Obama’s Department of Justice appealed that decision and he is still in Guantanamo as of this post. That looks to change soon, because the military cleared him for transfer back to Mauritania in 2016, which likely will mean his release. I wonder if he will someday re-publish his diary in a non-redacted version.

PolitiFact documents President Obama’s progress on his 2008 campaign promise to close Guantanamo here. Congressional Republicans have obstructed as much progress as they can (one Republican senator tweeted a video of himself crumpling up Obama’s 2016 proposal to close Guantanamo and throwing it into the trash). But politics aside– the American people and its political leaders have not made justice of this sort a priority.

“Bad guys who should be locked up anyway.”

Over and over for years, various interrogators with different methods ask Slahi if he was involved in this or that, or knew these people, etc. He told them what he knew (very little) and then said he didn’t know anything more. The interrogators thought it was very convenient that he didn’t know much– so they continued to interrogate him around the clock (literally– they would come in over shifts 24/7 so he never had time to sleep) and started subjecting him to torture.

He never has anything more to tell them, so they continue to get angrier and angrier, subjecting him to more and more. Eventually, Slahi is tired of the cycle. In a scene that Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22) would be proud of, Slahi receives a question from his interrogator. Slahi asks the interrogator what they want him to say, and then repeats it back to them.

In other words, to take all the uncertainty out of the strategy “tell them what they want to hear,” he literally asks them what they want to hear. And only then are they finally happy and start to (very slightly) loosen up on him. He feels guilty naming people he barely even knows as accomplices to his imaginary crimes, but he feels forced to do so. His interrogators tell him, “these are bad guys who should be locked up anyway.” They are so convinced, that they are perfectly happy hearing lies that implicate their targets.

None of the results of these interrogations ever appeared in court; the prosecutor the U.S. government appointed to make the case against Slahi quit after learning all the evidence the state had against Slahi was obtained through torture.

“Under different circumstances we could’ve been friends.”

Isolation. Sexual molestation. Seawater force-feeding. Unannounced beatings. Sleep deprivation. Beat up for praying. Locked in a freezing cold room with American propaganda posters and photos of President George W. Bush with the national anthem looping at full volume all night.

These kinds of things are what Slahi had to put up with after Donald Rumsfeld approved him for “enhanced interrogation.” The book documents several of these incidents– and more may be in those redacted sections. It’s really hard to read at times.

Yet still, Slahi maintains an epic amount of empathy. He is so nice to the guards that they start to play chess with him and write friendly notes when they quit. He thinks to himself: “under different circumstances we could’ve been friends.” He writes that even some of the interrogators who torture him are just following orders and he doesn’t dehumanize them.

To be clear, he would be justified in being angry. His ability to maintain this humanizing perspective is not some precondition for him deserving freedom. But the fact that he still does, makes for a moving read.

“Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

Slahi even extends this understanding to the country that is unlawfully detaining him, writing: “the rest of the world thinks of Americans as a bunch of revengeful barbarians. That may be harsh, and I don’t believe the average American is a revengeful barbarian. But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem, and so the country is losing friends every day and doesn’t seem to give a damn about it.”

I finished reading this book on the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and clearly the pain of that day still reverberates through thousands of lives in our country and around the world. The AUMF, passed by Congress days later, authorizes U.S. military actions in several countries even today. There doesn’t have to be a false dichotomy between either remembering and honoring those who have passed, or wanting our country’s pursuit of justice to be the most honorable it can be. We should be doing both.

This book points out that we have not been entirely honorable in our pursuit of justice– and must do much better. Before trying to improve other countries or tell their governments how to function, we must start by curing these dark corners of our own country’s unjust practices. As Barbara Lee, the lone dissenting vote in the U.S. House’s 420-1 vote to approve the AUMF on September 14, 2001, said on the House floor that day: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

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