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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

The Voice of the Tortured (Stephen S. Bush)

He faces no criminal charges. Indeed, a U.S. judge ordered him released five years ago. Nevertheless, Mohamedou Ould Slahi remains in Guantánamo Bay, after more than thirteen years in captivity. He was snatched out of his home country of Mauritania shortly after 9/11/2001, and then renditioned to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally Cuba. In U.S. custody he has endured beatings, threats, sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, lengthy exposure to cold temperatures, food deprivation, deprivation of medical care, stress positions, and forced nudity.

Ever since the “War on Terror” began over a decade ago, but especially in recent months after the release of the Senate Report on Torture in December, America and her allies have been engaged in often heated debate and soul-searching over the practice of torture. Following important discussions on the issue at this year’s Society of Christian Ethics annual meeting,Political Theology Today has invited a range of scholars in the fields of political theology and Christian Ethics to explore the issue

He faces no criminal charges. Indeed, a U.S. judge ordered him released five years ago. Nevertheless, Mohamedou Ould Slahi remains in Guantánamo Bay, after more than thirteen years in captivity. He was snatched out of his home country of Mauritania shortly after 9/11/2001, and then renditioned to Jordan, Afghanistan, and finally Cuba. In U.S. custody he has endured beatings, threats, sexual assaults, sensory deprivation, lengthy exposure to cold temperatures, food deprivation, deprivation of medical care, stress positions, and forced nudity. Slahi was tortured so severely as to carry him, in his words, beyond his limit of pain. Though Slahi is still imprisoned, in the publication of Guantánamo Diary, his voice eludes its censors and annunciates a powerful moral sensibility, one that is all the more remarkable because it has been shaped, in part, by what he has suffered. It is a sensibility from which we can learn.

At the heart of Slahi’s moral vision is the idea of being humane. He demands that his captors treat him humanely. He experiences the outrage and humiliation of the injustice when they do not. But even when they are inhumane, he persists in regarding them as human beings. To be humane is to express “feelings and emotions” and to be sensitive to others, especially to their suffering (353). “Regardless of our religion or race,” he insists, “we human beings always feel more or less bad about somebody who is suffering” (269). Humane people have a strong aversion to the sight of another person in a state of humiliation, pain, or betrayal, and this aversion occurs regardless of the other’s race, religion, or nationality. An appreciation for the humanity of others goes beyond mere respect for others’ rights. It sees others as emoting, feeling beings who are capable of both love and pain. Further, it sees people as complex and imperfect, mixtures of good and evil. We are to understand others, even our enemies, sympathetically. People are shaped for good and ill not just by their own actions but also by forces larger than them. Slahi considers the perspective of his enemy:

Let’s look at it from the interrogator’s perspective. They were literally taught to hate us detainees. ‘Those people are the most evil creatures on earth…Do not help the enemy…Keep in mind they are enemies…Look out, the Arabs are the worst, especially the Saudis and the Yemenis. They’re hardcore, they’re savages….Watch out, don’t [redacted] unless you secure everything…” (312)

This remarkable capacity to reflect on the conditions, psychological and social, that shape his captors’ character allows Slahi to overcome his propensity to hate Americans and the Arabs who assist them: “The situation didn’t make me hate either Arabs or Americans,” he writes (257). “I’m not going to judge anybody; I’m leaving that part to Allah. … I understand that nobody is perfect, and everybody does both good and bad things. … I hate nobody” (318). He extends this understanding to Americans in general:

Human beings naturally hate to torture other human beings, and Americans are no different. Many of the soldiers were doing the job reluctantly, and were very happy when they were ordered to stop. Of course there are sick people everywhere in the world who enjoy seeing other people suffering, but generally human beings make use of torture when they get chaotic and confused. And Americans certainly got chaotic, vengeful, and confused, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (370)

Slahi does not call this sympathetic understanding forgiveness, however. His refusal to hate does not temper his outrage. He does not accept the injustice he suffers. He discerns the character of his interrogators on an individual basis: they come in “all kinds … good, bad, and in between” (353). Some of his captors he regards as decent and humane, and a number he befriends. But he is forthright and indignant in identifying those who act inhumanely, who exhibit neither care nor emotion. He calls his torturers cowards, and he demands their accountability and punishment. He resists the abuse and maddening ignorance of his interrogators in every way he can. He pronounces the hypocrisy of his captors for paying lip service to freedom while destroying innocent Muslims’ freedom. He chastises the United States for betting “its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem” (339). He denounces the systems that produce Guantánamo Bay and its horrifying injustices. But he does not stigmatize an entire race, nation, or religion, even as he acknowledges that this sort of chauvinism is precisely what a good number of Americans have done to Arabs and Muslims.

Many have professed the ideals that Slahi proclaims—humaneness, compassion, sensitivity, and justice. But it is a rare thing to see them in practice to such an extent and under such conditions. It is noteworthy, too, that Slahi’s religion plays an essential role in sustaining his moral character. His prayer and Qur’an recitation, as well as his resolute confidence in Allah’s love and justice, play an essential role in giving him the fortitude to endure unspeakable abuse. When the beatings are at their worst, all Slahi can do is moan, “ALLAH…ALLAH.” In better times, he debates his Christian guards. In one of the book’s many humorous moments, he and a guard admit that they each think the other is bound for hell, and they good-spiritedly agree to look each other up when they arrive there. Slahi’s just and expansive Muslim spirit exposes the rankness of the hostility to Islam that is so pronounced in contemporary American public discourse.

If Slahi missteps, perhaps it is in his overestimation of American public opinion. He directs his demand for justice to the U.S. populace: “If Americans are willing to stand for what they believe in, I also expect public opinion to compel the U.S. government to open a torture and war crimes investigation” (369).

Unfortunately, the political will on the part of the citizenry for such an investigation—even though it is required by international laws that the U.S. has ratified—is lacking. 59% of the respondents to a national poll conducted in December shortly after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogations regard the CIA treatment of detainees as justified.

This is especially disheartening, given how the Senate report shows in detail that the CIA’s program was an utter fiasco from start to finish, an undertaking marked by incompetence at every level. Untrained officers performed unsupervised, unauthorized interrogations. The CIA held detainees in secret sites about whom they knew “very little” (14). The program was to a significant degree devised and conducted by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who had no interrogation experience, no specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, and no relevant cultural or linguistic training. The CIA did not review its own history with coercive interrogation and did not consult adequately with the agencies that did have relevant interrogation expertise. In fact, the CIA pushed aside the FBI interrogators who did have experience in interrogating al Qaeda members. The abuse and torture that resulted were extreme, including exposure to cold (fatal, in the case of Gul Rahman), medically unnecessary rectal feedings, threats of harm to detainees’ families, waterboarding, physical abuse, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation. Interrogators seemed to conceive of themselves as Jack Bauer but were in actuality equal parts Keystone Cop and Marquis de Sade. The Senate report concludes that no valuable information, that was not otherwise available, was produced by the torturous and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

If the Senate report has not inspired the political will to mount a serious investigation of criminal charges against U.S. agents involved in torture, it is hard to imagine what could. But perhaps Slahi’s appeal to the American public is no misstep at all, but rather a perceptive insight that whatever the challenges, public opposition to torture is essential. Debates about interrogation practices focus too exclusively on politicians, lawyers, and government officials. The problem with this, as Jeremy Waldron reminds us, is that “a legal prohibition is only as strong as the moral and political consensus that supports it.” And so we are in the situation we are in: the US has binding legal commitments not to commit torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and to prosecute anyone who does commit torture, but the majority of the population thinks that it is morally justifiable to torture a suspected terrorist. It is no surprise, then, that the legal prohibitions were so easily flouted. And as long as the public remains as it is, it is virtually certain that the U.S. will torture again.

Engaging the citizenry is not a substitute for legal, policy, and institutional reform, but attempts at such reform will not prove successful without a sea change among the citizenry. This highlights the crucial role not just for lawyers and policymakers, but for journalists, public intellectuals, artists, religious leaders, activists, parents, educators, and citizens to practice what Richard Rorty calls “sentimental education,” which aims to instill into the public precisely the sort of humane sensibilities that Slahi exhibits. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better sentimental education than a receptive encounter with Guantánamo Diary. If the U.S. public is not yet ready to honor his demand that his torturers be held accountable, at the very least we must insist on our own demand: release Mohamedou Ould Slahi.


The image at the top of this article is a photo of an anti-torture rally in Washington, DC on January 11, 2015. The photo was taken by Stephen Melkisethian and is available through a Creative Commons license.


Stephen S. Bush is the Manning Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. His interests, broadly speaking, are in theory of religion, philosophy of religion, and religious ethics. He has published Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is presently working on a book on religious and democratic individuality in William James.

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