[I’ve added one example of Slahi’s book as an illustration of the Report on Torture–there are many others I may add later.]
Last night on Interchange (The State of Terror: Guantanamo Diary) the conversation centered on the literary nature of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary.
Guest Scott Korb has written about the Diary as being related to the 19th century American slave narrative and suggesting that two conventions in particular are of note: 1) when Slahi makes a claim that he will not offer hearsay, but instead only what he observed or experienced himself–creating a kind of “trust me” claim, and 2) when Slahi creates an intimacy through direct address to his imagined audience, calling us “Dear Reader,” another move to create a trusting relationship.
Many argue (as both Joan Hawkins and Tony Brewer do on Interchange) that this book succeeds in presenting us with a unique voice, the voice of a real person telling us about his capture, rendition and torture, as it happened to him from between November 2001 and when he apparently began writing the book at the request of his lawyers in 2005.
A quick image search on the googles shows only about five pictures of the person claimed to be Slahi, the author the book. Surely there are more somewhere.
I don’t think I feel the same way. I think the book makes normal and expected arguments about torture, terrorism, and rendition, and with which I find much to agree. There are also standard “liberal” observations about the “commonness” of soldiers–that they are from the ranks of the pour; that their swearing is normal and colloquial and hence meaningless; that they speak improperly saying “he don’t/she don’t”; that the poor MUST do the dirty work of an immoral institutional practice and see it as a duty in their patriotic fight for FREEDOM. And so on. Which is to say, these are not unique insights. These are standard liberal critiques.
It’s impossible to convey torture in written text in a way that won’t lead to a kind of puerile translation error–the reader may actually be stimulated by the narrative (the practice of the Marquis de Sade comes to mind); and in this regard I think it was wise to keep much that surely has happened unwritten. But hours of standing and days of sleep deprivation cannot be “felt” in a book that is primarily documentary.
We also talked a bit about the redactions in Slahi’s book on Interchange and how they seemed sloppy and didn’t really hide much outside of what seemed like a full report on Slahi’s polygraph test (7 pages of black bars). I suppose this is where I felt that the redactions became a device used to persuade readers rather than an officially necessary act of keeping confidential information secret. Which is to say, if you’re going to redact the whole report, why bother allowing there even was a report? Much of this just seems nonsensical. For example, the pronouns for Slahi’s female interrogators are redacted (again sloppily as there are some that are left in the text), but as none of the male pronouns are redacted it’s easy to determine the gender distinction at work. Also, Slahi describes his teams of torturers/interrogators (these descriptions are redacted) and gives the primary interrogators names. One is Mr. X. But Mr. X is often redacted, again inconsistently, when other “names” are left in. There is no logic to this; but that doesn’t argue against it as an act of the military or CIA or both.
Redactions are a common occurrence in another document about US Government torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture is full of them. In fact, and a fact that really makes a statement, the Forward, written by the Chair of this committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, actually has a redaction in it. Who has the power here?
Next week on Interchange I’ll be joined by Scott Horton, contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, to talk about this report among other things. In the April issue of Harper’s Horton writes about the Report on Torture, “Company Men: Torture, Treachery, and the CIA.”
This Report is actually just the Executive Summary to the 6,700 page report. But after reading just the twenty numbered “Findings and Conclusions” what struck me was how much Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary actually seems to illustrate these “findings.” Which is to say, these documents, published just months apart, and literarly encompassing much of the same period (that of the special program of approved “enhanced interrogation techniques”), seem designed to serve a common purpose. That purpose, I suppose, is to show the American public, to put on record for the reading public to see, that US “foreign policy” as regards the “Global War on Terror” at least, has been designed around extraction, rendition, and torture of people who seem to meet the appropriate “profile” of a terrorist, though often it appears there is no evidence of such. This “program,” we are told, seems somehow a “crazy” (though “understandable”) response to the Al-Qaeda attack on the US on 9/11/2001. And, it seems as if we are to believe this program (implemented and operated between 2001 and 2009) has been terminated.
It is almost as if this is to serve as the nation’s mea culpa; this is the “looking backward” that we were told by President Obama we were not to do for the sake of our collective national health. Here is our oversight and our admission. A public spanking, but one, as the power of redaction asserts, with a very wet noodle. And this is a warning, as the redactions imply, that the CIA is till in charge.
UPDATE (5/21): example of illustrating the Torture Report.
#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.
While being subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and afterwards, multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence. Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities.
See Guantánamo Diary: pp 271-300.
No sleep was allowed. In order to enforce this, I was giving 25-ounce water bottles in intervals of one to two hours, depending on the mood of the guards, 24 hours a day…I couldn’t close my eyes for ten minutes because I was sitting most of the time o the bathroom…I started to hallucinate and hear voices as clear as crystal…Confessions are like beads of a necklace: if the first bead falls, the rest follow…Now, thanks to the unbearable pain I was suffering, I had nothing to lose, and I allowed myself to say anything to satisfy my assailants…
In what seems to me the strangest thing in Slahi’s book, and what seems to me comparable to something in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, is that at the end of his “Diary,” there is an “Author’s Note” (and this is actually the “hearsay” Slahi says he won’t participate in but which is conveyed by the lawyers) that reads:
In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou said that he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in the book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.
Operation Shylock, a book that purports to be a true account, opens with two epigraphs,
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.–Genesis 32:24
The whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself.
Existence is surely a debate…–Kierkegaard
and a Preface which begins,
For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book. These are minor changes that mainly involve details of identification and locale and are of little significance to the overall story and its verisimilitude.
and ends with a “Note To The Reader,” which reads, in part,
This book is a work of fiction….names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.