The Starting Five, 1/29/2015


"You, Dear Reader, could never understand the extent of the physical, and much more the psychological, pain people in my situation suffered, no matter how hard you try to put yourself in another's shoes," writes Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantanamo Diary, a courageous account of his years in U.S. custody as an "enemy combatant," written in 2005 and finally available to the public in a redacted version this month.

Slahi is, of course, right; imagination fails when reading of his journey through a post-9/11 Gulag, from Mauritania to Jordan, Jordan to Guantanamo, isolation cell to interrogation room, stress position to stress position, indignity to indignity.

But we ought to try. Try to understand, to empathize. Slahi, after all, remains at Guantanamo, almost a decade and a half after he was taken from his family, his homeland. He has never been charged with a crime. A federal judge granted his writ of habeas corpus in 2010 and ordered his release, but the Obama administration appealed the decision. The case remains pending today.

We ought to try to empathize because so many Americans Slahi encountered simply didn't. It starts from the top. From Donald Rumsfeld, who added the note, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?" to his authorization to use exceptional force while interrogating prisoners. What a perverse failure to put oneself in another's shoes; as Larry Siems, the diary's editor, notes, a study of Korean War POWs found that "Returnees who underwent long periods of standing and sitting... report no other experience could be more excruciating [because] [t]he immediate source of pain is not the interrogator but the victim himself.”

And that officially inhumane approach informs the behavior of Slahi's interrogators/torturers, described by Slahi with sardonic wit. There's I-AM-THE-MAN, who was only "able to hear his own voice," who never missed a lunch, "stuffing his big stomach" while depriving Slahi of sleep and basic needs. And the female interrogator who resolves to teach Slahi "about great American sex," molesting him with the help of another female torturer (Siems notes that this episode is corroborated by internal government documents). Slahi says she was the most understanding and kind of the bunch — keep in mind "she" is always redacted in the book because the government won't admit to using female interrogators — which isn't much of an accomplishment, because when her shift ended, Mr. X took over, a demonic figure clad from head to toe in black (including a black mask).

Not that we can make up for any of these injustices by merely bearing witness. But doesn't Slahi deserve a wide readership? He made the effort to write his diary under extreme duress and in his fourth language, precisely so that he could reach an American audience in the most direct way possible (although, of course, sections of his book are redacted and Siems further edited down the manuscript for clarity and readability). And as Siems points out, it's only a brave publishing house that would take on a book like this — and as I'll point out on behalf of Siems, only a brave editor who would try to annotate and reshape the work of a writer whom he has never met (he has, of course, been denied any contact with Slahi by the government).

I don't have the space to get into the details of why Slahi was incarcerated, but I'll note that a military prosecutor says Slahi reminded him of "Forrest Gump, in the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of al-Qaida and terrorism, and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background." Born in 1970 in Mauritania, he was the first in his family to attend college, winning a scholarship to study in Germany. He twice suspended his studies in electrical engineering to fight against Afghanistan's Communist government — a cause then supported by the U.S. and unopposed by Germany. He trained for the fight in a camp run by al-Qaeda, taking a loyalty oath at the time. But by the time al-Qaeda had achieved major victories, he saw that the battle was degrading into infighting between previously allied groups, and began to separate himself from the group.

Still, there were too many coincidences for U.S. intelligence to pass up the opportunity to abduct Slahi after 9/11. He had maintained ties with Abu Hafs — his distant cousin and brother-in-law who also happened to be an associate of bin Laden's — answering a few calls from him while in Germany, helping him transfer money to his family. He moved to Montreal shortly after Ahmed Ressam left the city with a car full of explosives, on the way to try to blow up LAX in what came to be called the Millenium Plot.

I'm persuaded by the way in which Siems calls attention to Slahi's gifts as a writer: How he seeks out humanity in the most unexpected places, his facility with a recently acquired language. Siems notes: "What impressed me most, as a reader and as a writer, when I first opened the file with Mohamedou's handwritten manuscript of Guantánamo Diary ... were characters and scenes far removed from Guantánamo: The hard-luck stowaway in a Senegalese prison. A sunset in Nouakchott after a Saharan dust storm. A heartbreaking moment of homesickness during a Ramadan call to prayer.”

But upon my first encounter with Guantanamo Diary, I was struck not by Slahi's storytelling skills, though they are considerable, nor his impressive poise. I was too distracted — or bewildered, or overwhelmed — by scenes that are perhaps too familiar to shock those who have read every document reluctantly released by the government, but which left this un-prolific reader disgusted by the behavior of those who claim to be acting for my safety.

And I was too disturbed by the gaps in the narrative, the blacked-out passages that are almost more troubling than the chronicles of abuse that were permitted to reach readers without security clearance. If the government has allowed us to learn what a torturer like Mr. X did to Slahi, then what was deemed too sensitive, too hot for civilian consumption? What happened during that polygraph session?


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