According to a study by the Pew Research Center a few years back, only about 24% of all Americans think that the authorities should never engage in torture, no matter the circumstances. That means that three out of four people think that torture is sometimes allowable. Every Republican candidate has come out in favor of torture as part of their warmongering, except Ted Cruz who, while pretending to be adamantly against torture, defines these acts of brutality against fellow human beings in such a way as to permit an extraordinary number of procedures that virtually everyone else would consider to be torture.
Most legitimate research demonstrates that torture does not work in extracting information from enemy personnel, but as with climate change and the minimum wage, those who support torture have purchased their own research that purports to show that torture works.
But as Guantánamo Diary graphically and brutally shows, the issue of our essential morality trumps any concerns for national security that sadists and the uninformed might invoke as a cause for torture. Guantánamo Diary is the memoir of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a highly educated Mauritanian who ended up being tortured for months on end at GITMO despite our intelligence services having not one iota of evidence that he ever engaged in terrorism or helped terrorist organizations.
At the age of 19, Slahi went to Afghanistan for a few months to help Islamic guerillas fight against the communist government that the United States also opposed at that time. He later lived and worked in Germany and Canada before returning to Mauritania. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States arranged for the Mauritanian government to detain Slahi and then render him to Jordan, where he was tortured, and then sent to GITMO for more torture. At Guantánamo Slahi was subjected to isolation, temperature extremes, beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation. One time, his American captors—representing you, me and every other citizen of the United States—blindfolded him and took him out to sea for a mock execution. As long as he denied accusations that he recruited suicide bombers for Al Qaida, his captors ratcheted up the pain.
After torturers used beatings and a forced diet of water to keep him awake for weeks, during which time he was interrogated and suffered other tortures on a daily basis, he finally confessed to crimes he did not commit and for which there was no shred of supporting evidence, circumstantial or otherwise. Prosecutors later refused to prosecute Slahi in 2003 because the government’s case depended solely on his false confessions, which were inadmissible under both U.S and international law because they had come under torture. In 2010, a federal judge ordered Slahi released, but an appeals court overruled and Slahi is still held at GITMO, although no longer being tortured.
Slahi’s descriptions of what his captors did to him are not for the light of heart. His words bring to life the excruciating pain that torture produces in a more evocative, immediate way than any movie or TV depiction of torture I have seen. His descriptions are so grievously harrowing, perhaps because I knew what Slahi suffered was real and that the torture inflicted on Arnold or Bruce Willis in movies is fake. Page after page describes hour after hour of beatings, sexual degradation, marathon interrogations and exposure to extreme cold or heat. Because we experience these physical torments through the eyes of an individual who is both a fine writer and legitimately religious, we also suffer the mental anguish felt by someone who is innocent of all charges.
Before allowing publication, the U.S. government blanked out much of Guantánamo Diary. Eight full pages in a row are blanked out at the height of the GITMO torture regime. Looking at page after page of thick black lines running horizontally from one edge of the paper to the other filled me with panic and fear, as my imagination provided all the punches, kicks, slaps, nakedness, ice cubes, blaring music, Billy clubs and excrement that the redaction concealed.
The basic argument of Guantánamo Diary is that “evil is as evil does.” Slahi’s experience in the U.S. torture gulag has caused him to consider the United States a force for evil, and not a bastion of freedom. Reading the memoir filled me with the shame of someone who has committed mortal sins that she-he knows are wrong. I didn’t commit the sins, but I felt the guilt, because it was my country. It’s no wonder that our use of torture embarrassed the country in front of the world and sent a lot of young idealistic Muslims into the arms of ISIS.
Slahi’s story exemplifies why torture doesn’t work. People get so confused and so fearful of additional torment that they begin to lie and admit to acts they didn’t really commit. It also shows that it takes a certain brutal and barbaric turn of mind to engage in torture. It makes me wonder if Dick Cheney ever witnessed the infliction of waterboarding or beatings on an individual or if his sadism is only symbolic, consisting of words and images in his mind. Or did he—or his less intellectual president—believe the sanitized versions of torture we see in our violent entertainments? Senator John McCain did not, but then again he went through the real deal in Vietnam.
It is unfortunate that the Obama Administration decided to sweep our torture history under the rug, saying that no one would be prosecuted for planning or implementing the torture regime that took hold of GITMO, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and dozens of other U.S. military facilities across the globe. Of course, prosecution would have meant sending President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and a few dozen other government officials to jail for breaking U.S. and international laws.
Word to Ted Cruz: Read Guantánamo Diary.
Word to Donald Trump: Read Guantánamo Diary.
Word to anyone who thinks we should have the right to inflict agonizing pan on others: Read Guantánamo Diary.
If after reading this poignant but depressing memoir, you still believe in torture, then consider yourself outside the human race.