Mohamedou Ould Slahi turned himself in to the Mauritanian police for what he thought would be routine questioning in 2001. Instead he was rendered to Jordan, shuffled to the notorious Bagram military prison in Afghanistan, and finally locked in Guantanamo Bay. Mohamedou has been imprisoned in a military base without charge to this very day.
Mohamedou wrote a book by hand in his cell – Guantanamo Diary – in 2005. It was immediately classified. Finally declassified, Mohamedou’s story has just been published. Ten years later. The book is full of redactions, but Mohamedou has made it clear that he knows the names, the real names, of many of his interrogators. Let’s hope that one day those are published, too.
We’ve known about torture in Guantanamo Bay for years. But it’s different to read terse legalese about impersonal “enhanced interrogation techniques” applied upon faceless “detainees” than it is to hear a torture victim, a human being you can relate to – moreover someone who is innocent – recount his own story. We automatically dehumanize nameless suspects in the abstract. Information is released, by authority, in a specific way to create that effect. Guantanamo Diary makes abstraction and dehumanization impossible.
This isn’t the first account of torture that I’ve read. It probably will not be for you. Who hasn’t read accounts of the Holocaust, for example, or South African prisons? But there is something different about what happened here. It may be the fact that we’re conditioned from a young age to understand that the Nazi regime was evil, or that apartheid South Africa was evil, thus we expect brutal recollections. That’s not the case with the United States. Those who didn’t believe that the USA tortures people, or those who understood torture exists but never personally connected with its reality, may find Guantanamo Diary to be an “oh shit” moment.
Mohamedou was someone who didn’t believe that the United States tortures people. Despite having fought with Al Qaeda in 1991 against the Soviets (with American encouragement), and despite his awareness that the American criminal justice system was exceptionally bad (“I was thinking about documentaries I had seen about their prisons, and the harshness with which they treat their prisoners.”), Mohamedou was more afraid of torture in his native Mauritania or Jordan than in the United States. “I didn’t believe that Americans torture, even though I had always considered it a remote possibility.”
I think this is how many of us feel, or felt. American citizens in particular. Torture, as well as the form of detainment practiced in Guantanamo Bay, is antithetical to the image that the United States projects. Historical diversions from this image, such as the World War detainment of Japanese citizens, are addressed only hesitantly and with embarrassment. The United States has successfully extended the idea around the world – as far as Bedouins living in Mauritanian deserts – that it simply does not abuse people. But it’s just an image, a facade.
Mohamedou’s account further shatters images by uncovering how incompetent American authorities, including lead interrogators, are. When knowledge of American torture became widespread we still assumed that the American military practiced torture efficiently. This is the “leader of the free world,” after all. It’s a country that spends most of its budget on wars. Surely they have a top notch torture/interrogation team.
Instead, out of the words the Canadians chose to share with their U.S. colleagues, U.S. interrogators magically stuck with two words for more than four years: Tea and Sugar.
“What do you mean by tea and sugar?”
“I mean tea and sugar.” I cannot tell you how many times the U.S. asked me, and made other people ask me, this question. Another Mauritanian folktale recounts about a man who was born blind and who had one chance to get a glimpse of the world. All he saw was a rat. After that, whenever anybody tried to explain anything to the guy, he always asked, “Compare it with the rat: Is it bigger? smaller?”
And isn’t American popular media, specifically cinema and television, overloaded with cloak-and-dagger spy stories? What about depictions of super elite Delta-Seal sniper-Ranger special-ops teams? This all perpetuates the myth of the truly elite, be it CIA or FBI, Navy or Marine, NSA or nameless, torture-practicing agency.
The reality is that Guantanamo Bay is a huge, confused clusterfuck staffed with people who have no clue what they are doing. I don’t think that any official report, any declassified document, has really communicated that fact. Guantanamo Diary does. If there is a major element that stands out beside torture it is that everyone, from interrogators to guards, from CIA agents to domestic American police officers, are making it up as they go along. Interrogators routinely confused detainees with one another, translators spoke poor Arabic, guards often behaved more like they were playing Call Of Duty than guarding “dangerous” terrorism suspects.
The incompetence doesn’t make it less frightening, though. It makes it worse.
“Let’s just assume you’ve done what you confessed to.”
“But I haven’t.”
“Just let’s assume.”
“Okay,” I said. As high-ranking as <REDACTED> was, he was the worst interrogator I’ve ever met. I mean professionally. He just jumps back and forth without focusing on any specific thing. If I had to guess, I would say that his job was anything but interrogating people.
The infantile behavior of interrogators, guards and persons involved in renditions (presumably CIA agents) is the material of parody. Except it isn’t parody, it’s what really happened. “The guards wanted to be baptized with the names of characters from Star Wars.” American officers got mad over board games; “After one game of chess with [guard, name redacted] he flipped the board. ‘Fuck your Nigger chess, this is Jewish chess.’” Interrogators repeatedly exhibited ignorance of Arab culture; “’Look, I got some Arabic Music,’ said <REDACTED> handing me an Audio CD. ‘Ok, fine!’ But the CD was not even close to the Arabic language: it was Bosnian.” In Afghanistan, CIA agents dressed as cowboys drawled threats at detainees; “We don’t like you to speak English. We want you to die slowly.”
Guantanamo guards, too, were subject to propaganda. Mohamedou recounts a prison full of written exhortations, patriotic motivational posters and warning signs designed for the prison staff. Many verbal interactions between Mohamedou and his captors took the form of, “I’m your enemy,” the guards trying to convince themselves while leaving Mohamedou confused; he didn’t feel like he was their enemy. The extent of soldier self-awareness was often on par with nightly news slogans: “Al Qaeda is using our liberal justice system.” After years of interaction with Mohamedou, a few got it: “’Do you hate my government?’ <REDACTED> asked me once while sifting through a map. ‘No, I hate nobody.’ ‘I would hate the U.S. if I were you!” <REDACTED> said.”
“I used to make fun of the signs they put up for the interrogators and the guards to raise their morale, “Honor bound to defend freedom.” I once cited that big sign to <REDCATED>.
“I hate that sign,” <REDACTED> said.
And torture. We already have a general idea of the kinds of torture practiced in Guantanamo Bay from declassified documents. Guantanamo Diary shows us what that really means in practice. In many cases the reality has been understated. The Wikipedia entry for Mohamedou Ould Slahi, for example, cites “sexual humiliation.” Mohamedou was sexually assaulted multiple times. It’s only in the context of American torture and propagandistic revision that we call sexual assault “sexual humiliation.” Not to mention that Mohamedou was also beaten, suffocated, and put through a mock execution. Is this the American military we’re talking about, or ISIS?
If the term Kafkaesque has ever been applied appropriately to a real-life imprisonment, it’s here. Mohamedou was interrogated for years before he had a clear idea of what the United States was interested in. Then the target shifted multiple times. Initially, Mohamedou was suspected of involvement in the Millennium plot. When that fell through, Mohamedou’s incidental associations remained a source of suspicion. He was accused of being a 9/11 recruiter. As he was shuffled between interrogation teams it became clear that the state was not seeking specific information, nor a confession. They were fishing for intelligence. They were manufacturing a pretext to justify detention.
“You realize if I admit to such a thing I have to involve other people! What if it turns out I was lying?” I said.
“So what? We know your friends are bad, so if they get arrested, even if you lie about <REDACTED> it doesn’t matter, because they’re bad.”
9/11, like accusing someone of being a pedophile, ensures that Mohamedou is a political untouchable. The mere association makes Mohamedou’s release unthinkable, despite the fact he has no link to 9/11. This, even after Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of the military court, said Mohamedou was a “Forrest Gump” figure: “there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of al-Qaida and terrorism … different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out.” Interrogation team after team discovered he wasn’t someone they wanted, but no one had the guts to release him. Instead they shuffled him around, tried to recruit him as a spy, implicated him in new terrorist attacks (some impossible, committed while he was in Guantanamo Bay), and manufactured a witness, in many instances with the full knowledge that he would be lying to win the convictions of innocent people.
They did eventually gain confessions from Mohamedou, after torture. They gained the kinds of confessions that torture provides: Mohamedou confessed to anything put in front of him. After years of interrogation, Mohamedou regurgitated all of the information his captors fed him over the years. The untruthful nature of his confessions was even obvious to his interrogators. And after forcing false confessions, interrogators were indignant to discover out that Mohamedou’s confessions were lies. Catch-22. Mohamedou was tortured until he confessed to crimes he did not commit, until he implicated innocent people, and then his torturers believed he didn’t do the things he admitted to under duress.
After that point Stuart Couch, military prosecutor, declined to bring charges. Any “evidence” Mohamedou gave was extracted by force, thus inadmissible. Mohamedou’s condition while in detention changed. They stopped torturing him, by and large, but kept him in isolation. He remains in a special area of Guantanamo Bay to this day. When Judge James Robertson ordered Mohamedou’s release in 2010, the Obama administration filed an appeal to block it.
Mohamedou seems to be stuck in limbo. He can’t be charged. He’s certainly innocent of any initial, or post facto invented, suspicions. But he’s also an embarrassment, a political threat. He assuredly frightens those involved in the injustice. That’s everyone from the guards who routinely beat him to the administration that specifically authorized his torture. And while we can’t expect the system that systematically tortured Mohamedou to also be a fount of justice (although Mohamedou is more optimistic than I am), history should teach us that those who commit truly evil deeds remain targets the rest of their lives.
Mohamedou bonded with some of his interrogators, as well as some of the soldiers guarding him. A few soldier-guards candidly related to Mohamedou that they realized the whole situation was wrong. At least one soldier was transferred out because he disapproved of torture. Mohamedou is forgiving of most, optimistic about human beings and human nature. Guantanamo Diary will no doubt be called a “human” story; Mohamedou humanizes and forgives his own torturers, even building relationships with them post-torture. Yet, I hope that this is not the message people take away.
We don’t need to feel close to the few guards who didn’t approve of torture, nor to interrogators who opted for rapport-building techniques rather than beatings. Not even if Mohamedou did. We shouldn’t feel vicariously justified in reading that some captors candidly affirmed that Guantanamo Bay was a bad place, while still standing and guarding the doors. What we really have is another example of men and women conforming to evil under the pressure of authority. It’s a classic example of the research of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. It isn’t enough to quietly dissent behind authority’s back. We have to demand more from our fellow human beings.
Mohamedou was right when he wrote that “human beings naturally hate to torture other human beings.” And we shouldn’t be surprised that “soldiers were doing the job reluctantly” or that they “were very happy when they were ordered to stop.” This has always been the case with prisons, abuse and torture. And it isn’t enough. It wont be enough until abuse is impossible; impossible because the moment an individual crosses the line they are immediately overwhelmed by their peers. We can’t accept that people feel bad about torture, yet stand beside or facilitate it.
“You’re holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust. And it’s not the first time you have kidnapped Africans and enslaved them.”
“African tribes sold their people to us,” he said.
“I wouldn’t defend slavery, if I were in your shoes.” I said.
It’s not sufficient that plantation hands are upset when they are asked to whip slaves. We need to demand that they put down the whips, arm the slaves and participate in the slave revolt themselves.