“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”– George Orwell, 1984
Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It’s a sentiment this country has been at odds with since its inception, from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the Patriot Act of 2001. Liberty was one of the first casualties of our War on Terror. Don’t believe me? Then pick up Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary, and decide for yourself.
In November 2001, Slahi voluntarily drove to his local police station in Mauritania for questioning. It wasn’t his first time being questioned. He’d joined Al-Qaeda to fight the Russians in the 80s (he said he’d cut ties with the group after the country was liberated). When he lived in Canada, he was sure the government was spying on him, after an al-Qaeda member who attended his mosque was arrested for his part of the Millennium plot. The cops said he’d hopefully be back home that night. He hugged his mother and drove away. She’s dead now. Her son never came home.
Within days, he was transferred to a Jordanian prison. Seven months later, he was shackled, blindfolded and flown to a U.S. base in Afghanistan. A couple weeks after that he was sent to Guantanamo Bay. He’s still there today, having never been charged with a crime. It’s a story worthy of Kafka, if only it weren’t real. Slahi’s guilt remains absolute and unquestionable, even when what he’s accused of changes. At first he was questioned about the Millennium Plot. Somehow that morphed into him being one of the brains behind 9/11 and a “high-level, smart-beyond-belief terrorist.” Nothing Slahi says, in fact nothing that his Mauritanian and Jordanian interrogators say, can change the Americans’ minds.
“I’ve done no crimes, and no matter how harsh you guys’ laws are, I have done nothing.’
“‘But what if I show you the evidence?’”
The interrogator shows him a list of the 15 “worst people” in Guantánamo, on which he is counted “No. 1.”
“‘You gotta be kidding me,’ I said.
“‘No, I’m not. Don’t you understand the seriousness of your case?’
“‘So, you kidnapped me from my house, in my country, and sent me to Jordan for torture, and then took me from Jordan to Bagram, and I’m still worse than the people you captured with guns in their hands?’
“‘Yes, you are. You’re very smart! To me, you meet all the criteria of a top terrorist. When I check the terrorist checklist, you pass with a very high score.’
“I was so scared, but I always tried to suppress my fear. ‘And what is your [redacted] checklist?’
“‘You’re Arab, you’re young, you went to jihad, you speak foreign languages, you’ve been in many countries, you’re a graduate in a technical discipline.’
“‘And what crime is that?’ I said.
“‘Look at the hijackers: They were the same way.’ ”
Slahi started writing his diary, in English (his fourth language) back in 2005. It’s hard to read, detailing the incompetence of interrogators, the sadism of the low-ranking guards, and the brutal physical and sexual abuse he underwent. When he was first arrested he thought if could logically prove he wasn’t a terrorist then he would be free, not understanding that being detained there was considered proof enough of his guilt. Any kindness he received was quickly stripped away (a Puerto Rican platoon treated him humanly. They were transferred).
There’s another author in this book, a shadowy presence that only makes itself known through what it omits. Before its release, US government censors went through the manuscript, adding 2,500 black-bar redactions, a reminder to us that Slahi is still in Guantanamo. Some of the redactions seem arbitrary-female pronouns are removed. Others make no sense, or are intermittently blacked out. What’s more important is what those censors allow to stay in. His description of torture remains relatively intact, as if the U.S. isn’t even pretending their guards don’t beat the shit out of detainees on a regular basis.
There’s so much of this book I haven’t even covered yet, from American neocolonialist practices to the Bush administrations whole-hearted support of torture (remember when Rumsfeld said that forcing detainees to stand in confined areas for four hours wasn’t torture because he stood 8-10 hours a day?).
Guantanamo Bay is still open today, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi is still in it. Despite a judicial order for his release in 2010, Prisoner 760 isn’t going anywhere. Reading this book, it’s impossible not to think that the terrorists won after 9/11 as our country abandoned the better angels of our nature and instead gave into fear and anger. At the end of the book, Slahi says, “Crisis always brings out the best and worst in people – and in countries, too … So has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks?” The answer seems to be an unequivocal no. But maybe that can change.