Anyone paying attention the past 12 years knows something of the CIA rendition program - seizing suspected terrorists around the globe and shipping them off to be interrogated and tortured in Jordan or Egypt. And we all think we know something about Guantanamo. Naturally the US government denied the very existence of the rendition program, and for years denied that the torture conducted in Guantanamo was anything other than “harsh interrogation” (as NPR continues to call it, to this day). But parts of the truth were eventually revealed, and so we know now of the waterboarding, the wrist suspension, the sleep deprivation, the beatings, the cold, the 24 hour interrogations, the isolation, the use of psychomimetic drugs. And, in this book, we get a clearer picture of what that really means, though as Slahi tells us, we can never really know and can scarcely imagine what it is like to experience these things.
I began to say, “this is an amazing book’ - as though it were the latest stylish literary work, something to be read and enjoyed and forgotten when the next nice piece of writing comes along. But this is not that. It is a book written by a man while in Guantanamo, in 2005, recounting the five years of harassment, kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture that he had undergone. It took another 6 years for his pro-bono attorneys to get the US government to allow a highly redacted version of the book to be released, and a further 3 years for the book to be published.
The book is remarkable, first, because Slahi had to basically teach himself English while at Guantanamo. Second, because it is a very clear account of what he went through, told as dispassionately as possible. Third, Slahi reveals a deep humanity: he must surely feel a great deal of anger and bitterness over what has been done to him, yet throughout he expresses understanding and even sympathy for some of those who have mistreated him so terribly.
I suspect that there are relatively few people who will read this book. Recent polls show that a majority of Americans are pretty OK with the fact that our government uses torture, and believe that it is “worth it.” Dick Cheney gets to have his ugly face on cable news and tell the world that he “would do it again” (a clear admission that he did it in the first place) and this it “was worthwhile.” And so most Americans would likely not want to be bothered hearing from a “terrorist suspect”.
But there are people who will want to read this book: people with some sense of ethics and decency, and people who grew up believing that the US is a nation based on law, and that there is at least some modicum of justice in America. I hope that I have a sense of ethics and decency, but I stopped believing long ago that law in America means anything, or that our government is even the least bit interested in justice.
In 2010 Slahi was ordered released from Guantanamo by a federal judge, based on the fact that the government had not charged him with any crime nor presented evidence that he had committed a crime. The Obama Justice department appealed that decision and it was sent back to federal district court. No decision has yet been made. Slahi remains in Guantanamo.