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Guantánamo Diary: Interrogating the War on Terror (Pt. 2) (by Maryam El-Shall)

The discourse of terrorism is itself an ideology linked to conceptions of truth and identity, life and death, law and justice. But there is also a terror that exists in silence, a terror that bears no name because the life it destroys is not even recognized as having lived.

Mohammed Ould-Slahi and Larry Siems. Guantánamo Diary. Little, Brown, and Co., 2015. 432 pp. Continued from last week.

Slahi’s story is very much about truth. In the course of narrating the events leading up to and during his detention, it is never clear what exactly Slahi has or has not done. We are never told what laws he is thought to have broken or even how the law itself is constituted. We learn that acts committed at one period of time and in one context were lawful only to learn later that the same acts at a different time are illegal. Slahi’s identity as terrorist or a figure of terror, and thus the value of his life as that which has meaning or is reduced to bare life, that which, by virtue of its radical exclusion, constitutes the bios or political life of the state, turns on this question of truth. In this sense, Slahi’s truth–who or what is he? How is his identity is constituted if not by his name, the life he tries to preserve through faith (a faith which is not only denied him, but is also continually tested), the story he tries to tell, which is radically rejected throughout the narrative and which Slahi himself at times begins to question, is vital not only to understanding the discourse surrounding terrorism, but also, more importantly, to understanding how the discourse of terrorism has itself become become a source of truth by which identities are constituted and life itself is redefined as that which is and is not mournable.

Slahi’s story is also about violence. It is not only about the violence of war and torture, but, more fundamentally, it is about the objective violence of language when it names and claims to assert the truth. In the case of Slahi, the violence his story interrogates is that produced in the course of his numerous interrogations when, before any questions are asked, all questions have already been answered. For his captors, Slahi, no matter how his narrative turns or whether or not he remains silent, is a terrorist. For the reader and for Slahi himself, the objective violence of the language of terror, the identity it imposes on Slahi, the simultaneous imposition and withdrawal of the law that it creates, opens the way to the subjective violence of torture whereby new truths are produced through false confessions. Slahi’s story thus never ends even though it has a final chapter. We do not know the outcome, but remain in the realm of undecidability, a perpetual state of exception. At the conclusion of the narrative, Slahi remains detained in Guantanamo Bay without charge and so his identity sits at the threshold of the law—is he a terrorist or is he the subject of terror?

Connected to the concern with truth and the production of truth through violence, Slahi’s narrative is also about identity. Reading it, we are confronted with the image of a radical Other. But this Other is the unexpected Other of the self alienated from its conventionally understood identity. We approach the text ostensibly knowing what to expect: a confrontation of good and evil, with the division between the two blurring from time to time. We are prepared for this minor shock since we have seen it before—the torture at Abu Ghraib, the news stories about gross violations of human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can accept these outliers‑what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called a case of a “few bad apples.” But what Slahi’s narrative provides is sort of fun-house mirroring of the self where the very distinctions between the terrorist and the victim are totally blurred. Slahi’s sideways glance at himself as one with and without identity, as a figure of bare life who, through the distanced gaze of his captors, can see himself as such—he often refers to himself as a ghost, a skeleton, a kind of soulless body—and Slahi’s vision of his captors as figures without names but clear identities—the kind guard and the cruel guard, friend and enemy, and so on—disturbs all boundaries and radically calls into question the very goals of the war itself. Still, Slahi names grants his captors their humanity through discussions of their strengths and weaknesses, the brutality and the kindness they show him, but we never learn who they are outside of their roles as interrogators, guards and torturers. They too straddle the threshold of legality as they befriend and torture Slahi.

Slahi’s narrative in this sense replicates the very division upon which terrorism and the war advanced against it rests—are we? Who are they? What does it mean to be an “us” as opposed to a “them”? For the western reader, the nameless figures who beat and torture Slahi represent the self radically othered through. We stare into the abyss expecting to see the terrorist only to find ourselves reflected. Slahi’s captors are the American or American-proxies on the front line of the War on Terror. But in their fight, their image is radically unexpected as they become indistinguishable from those they attack Their identities are also uncertain. What we see in their confrontations with Slahi, are the contradictions and violence of names—terrorists, soldiers, police, victims—and a certain banality of brutality. A plot moves forward without events; we are given scenes of torture and subjected, along with Slahi, to an endless onslaught of circular and, at times, puzzling questions, but there are no answers. The conflict over the truth hangs without resolution throughout the narrative. We are left with a series of meaningless scenes where the search for the truth of who Slahi is is ultimately reduced to a job. Slahi’s torturers are just following orders; torture is routine. For the western reader accustomed to the discourse of the War on Terror as a noble fight for freedom and homeland security, the scenes at Guantanamo are simultaneously sickening and laughable.

Finally, Slahi’s narrative highlights an unknown known about the meaning of western identity by engaging with the question of faith. Throughout the diary, Slahi insists on two things central to his identity in the narrative: 1) his innocence 2) his Islamic faith. Slahi suggests that the latter cancels or makes the former impossible in the eyes of his captors. For Slahi, the War on Terror is very much a war on Islam. He is denied access to a Koran for a lengthy period of time; he cannot pray openly nor in congregations with other detainees; and his sexual mores are assaulted when female interrogators attempt to force him to perform sexual acts prohibited by Islamic law. This treatment echoes what we know about the treatment of other detainees at Guantanamo and of the torture methods that have been used at Bagram and Abu Ghraib. These details are revealing then not simply of the extent to which the interrogation techniques advanced in the cause of the War on Terror deploy expertise in the fields of psychology, medicine and area studies in the cultures and practices of the Muslim world, but also of a competing narrative about truth.

Slahi’s Muslim identity matters here to the extent that it is a source of truth for him as well as a competing truth for his captors. At one point, Slahi engages in a dialogue with one of his guards about Islam and Christianity where this struggle becomes most apparent. When Slahi admits confusion over the concept of the Holy Trinity and asks his interlocutor to explain how those who never heard of Jesus could be condemned for not believing in Jesus’ sacrifice, the discussion ends with the guard with whom Slahi was conversing leaving the scene. This scene, coupled with the various assaults on Slahi’s Islamic faith, demonstrates highlights a central question about the discourse of terrorism and the war advanced against it. What does it mean to commit an act of terror? What does it mean to experience terror? These questions, I suggest, cannot be answered by examining events of violence alone. Rather, the answer to these questions can be discerned by asking about the meaning we attribute to acts of violence. Meaning here is linked to a belief that precedes the events themselves and over determines their meaning. The question of faith opened up by Slahis narrative turns not simply on what Muslims believe or what Christians believe or even on the question of the role of faith in acts of terror or in western political discourse. Rather, the question of faith is very much centered in the relationship with the other fundamental to western identity itself. Here, we see that Slahi is a terrorist to the extent not that he believes in Islam or the ideology of terrorism. Rather, Slahi is a terrorist to the extent that we believe that he believes these things. This belief, I suggest, forms part of an unknown known buttressing western identity itself.

The discourse of terrorism is itself an ideology linked to conceptions of truth and identity, life and death, law and justice. But there is also a terror that exists in silence, a terror that bears no name because the life it destroys is not even recognized as having lived. This is the bare life that has no name, that cannot be sacrificed, but that is nonetheless an essential part of the recognizable world in which we live. I worry about this non-life life. I worry about the silence that surrounds it. I want to speak of it and I want to find others who will listen. So I am writing this to come to terms with those worries, to air out my fears, to make them real. Can we break out of the terror of silence?


Maryam El-Shall teaches English and Humanities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Her research focuses on truth discourses, biopolitics and political theory more broadly. She is currently working on a project examining the intersections of classical discourses of madness, Orientalism and contemporary discourses of terrorism.

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