Mohamedou Ould Slahi on My Mind

There are things worse than death, and torture is one of them.  Rape or a certain kind of loneliness almost certainly count, too, and you might be able to dream up one or two more if you really want to send your mind to some dark places.  Anyway… torture.

Since I was studying international politics in college during the time spanning between the Tuesday, September 11, 2001 attacks and the Thursday, March 20, 2003 commencement of the United States’ second invasion of Iraq, we discussed torture in my classes frequently.  One of my professors had known several people over the years who had been victims of torture, and he assured us that what was left of a person after they were tortured was never quite the same.  Not in the poignant, end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King kind of way where they say, “some wounds never heal,” but more in a can’t-form-normal-relationships, prone-to-violence, and never-sleep-normally-again sort of way.  A cries openly in a culture in which men do not (maybe cannot?) cry openly sort of way.  A never comes fully back sort of way.

It is, obviously, a PTSD that doesn’t seem to abate, even when it’s treated.  Tortured people are never again whole, thus torture is worse than death.

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I tell you this because I’ve been reading some of the Guantanamo memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee who remains in America’s Cuban hell even now.  They’re being published as a book, and Slate.com has been running excerpts this week.  Good luck making it through one of his Slate pieces in one sitting; the experiences of torture they describe are so vile you won’t want to keep reading, let alone believe they actually happened at American hands.

Even so, read them.  I know I’ve sometimes recommended a piece here or there, but this isn’t like that.  Read these excerpts.  Do it.  I’m not asking.

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I don’t believe everything Slahi says.  His claim that it was all a massive coincidence that he knew and associated with terrorists in 4 or 5 countries on 3 or 4 continents (everywhere I go, I see McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and al-Qaeda trained jihadis!  Globalization rules!) causes my BS detector to beep like it’s trying to avert a plane crash, and if he’s lying about that, he’s telling other lies too.  But I don’t believe for a second that his entire narrative is fictional, either.  Which means we – American taxpayers – paid despicable thugs – American and otherwise – to torture him.  So we’re clear, I’m not talking about waterboarding, either.  We’re talking about something even the neo-cons have to admit was beyond any gray area.

While that’s disturbing in its own right, it gets still more perverse.  The first Slahi excerpt run by Slate tells the story of how the detainees at Guantanamo – speaking to one another in Arabic, since that was the common tongue to unite people from so many corners of the world – were divided on the kind of treatment they anticipated from American captors.  Initially, those from Middle East dictatorships assumed they’d be harassed, mistreated, and tortured in an effort to garner information, whereas those detainees who had lived at any point in a Western democracy assumed they would be treated justly and in accordance with Western legal principles.  Obviously, those that had lived in the West – including Slahi – were horribly mistaken.

At the time the detainees had that conversation – presumably at some point in 2002, although I’m not entirely sure – such hope in American idealism wasn’t as embarrassingly naïve as it now seems.  The very first American document, the Declaration of Independence, sets out the idea that we all have certain unalienable rights, and while it doesn’t name torture specifically, that omission was fixed pretty early in American history with the 8th Amendment to the Constitution.  Which means that torturing people is inconsistent with how Americans have conceived justice since the moment our country began.  So the naiveté of the detainees was really just the perfectly defensible assumption that Americans would act like Americans.

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What’s particularly interesting about this, of course, is the fact that in choosing to abandon centuries of we-don’t-torture tradition, the Bush administration chose to abandon the one thing about the United States that the detainees seemed to admire.  If there was ever an issue on which the Guantanamo guests might be persuaded to see the United States as anything other than the Great Satan in need of annihilation, that was it.  If there was ever a moment when the War on Terror might have been nippable in the bud, it was then.  Instead, we chose the path of medievalism.

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Since this is an evangelical blog, you might ask what any of this has to do with evangelicalism.  It’s a fair question, but one that misses the point entirely.  The question of torture is one of justice, and thus a concern that transcends the relatively small boundaries of evangelicalism.  There are things about which all Christians can agree, and the notion that God demands justice from those who would claim him is one of those things.

Torture is not just.  It damages people created in God’s image in a way that no person could ever defend to the creator.  It treats someone God has made as less valuable than information, and – in the sickest of ironies – it yields only information of dubious reliability.  It fundamentally elevates the value of the torturer and the torturer’s need for information over the tortured’s wellbeing and soul.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something evangelicals can condemn unequivocally as wrong.  So while I hear a lot more evangelicals worrying about whether or not gay people can marry or Obama’s a socialist, this should be on your radar too, even now that America has forgotten all about it.

The problem, friends, is that Guantanamo is still open.  And the victims tortured with our tax dollars – including Slahi – are still basking in the Cuban heat.  At least, what’s left of them is.

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Meanwhile, the Arab Spring.  The detainees skeptical that the U.S. would offer them better treatment than the torture they received at home hailed from countries that have since largely overthrown the torturing governments in favor of democracy and (at least in theory) human rights.  So while the U.S. adopted the barbarism of Arab dictatorships, the Arab Spring saw those same dictatorships collapse in favor of governments paying lip service to Western notions of justice.  We chose their historic path, and they chose ours.  Guess who won that trade?

And while we’re busy forgetting our choice – as though forgetting could wash the evil from our hands – those new democracies are busy grasping for the next steps.  You’ll notice that Americans are full of advice on that score, by the way.  But you’ll forgive Egypt’s President Morsi (and others) if they don’t want to hear our advice.  After all, from their perspective (and from mine, after reading Slahi’s tale), it might be time for the Arab Spring to yield to an American Spring.

What would that look like?  I’m not entirely sure.  But after reading Slahi’s excerpts on Slate (you did read them, right?), I know that I don’t trust our government so long as Guantanamo remains open.  I know that we owe those detainees who will not be prosecuted more than it’s possible to repay.  And I know that I’d like to hear evangelicals have something to say about all of this, and I suspect God might like that too.

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