Sunday, June 21, 2015

Unsettled consciences

Last week Pope Francis' much anticipated encyclical on climate change was released. The pope enjoins us to take care of what is happening in front of our noses. Will anyone listen? One of my favorite observers of U.S. politics mused:

... there’s a lot to be said for the power to unsettle consciences.

In the interests of my own edification and Erudite Partner's new book project, I'm reading Guantanamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi's account of his rendition and torture by my government between 2000 and 2004. Slahi is still locked up at Gitmo, despite a federal judge ruling in 2010 that the government's evidence was:

"so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a criminal prosecution.”

The government didn't like that result and has succeeded in stymieing the case. Slahi has now been in U.S. custody for 13 years, with no criminal conviction and no end in sight.

I was in no hurry to read this book. Who wants to read details of torture and of my government behaving badly? But at length, I began. And in the introduction I came across this anecdote about Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch who was assigned by his Marine Corps superiors to prosecute Slahi (first brought forward by reporter Jess Bravin in the the Wall Street Journal and reproduced here via an account from America Magazine.) Couch learned that Slahi was not only physically and mentally abused under a regime approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he had also been told his mother would be brought to Guantanamo and gang raped. Couch's conscience was evidently unsettled.

Mr. Bravin deftly portrays the moral anguish of Colonel Couch... [A]t a Sunday church service in Falls Church, Va., during a routine renewal of baptismal promises, the questions began to take hold of him. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” All persons included Mr. Slahi, Colonel Couch realized. Mr. Bravin writes: “He was surrounded by people, but suddenly Couch felt very, very small. It was as if he stood alone in a dark, cavernous hall, a bright, single shaft of light illuminating him, unseen persons, or powers, awaiting his answer.” United with those around him, he responded, “I will. With God’s help.”

Colonel Couch decided to drop the case against Mr. Slahi. A 9/11 case. “I’d hate to say it, but being a Christian is gonna trump being an American,” he explained.

I thought that a book marred by over 2500 black bars indicating U.S. government redactions from the text would make a miserable audio book. I was absolutely wrong. Editor Larry Siems' footnotes clarify what is left out -- such as nearly every reference to female guards and interrogators. A terrific cast of readers enact Guantanamo Diary so as to preserve Slahi's lively personal witness. Though tortured within an inch of his life, he comes across as an appealing smart ass. English is his fourth language, learned in custody, after he'd absorbed Arabic and French in his native Mauritania and German while studying in that country. He wields his new tongue vividly. It is his interrogators who often come across as ignorant and verbally inept dumb clucks. Yet nearly everywhere his captors carry him, he finds remnants of humanity among some soldiers and guards.

You do not need to be exceptionally brave to read this book, just appropriately unsettled.

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