If You Read One Book Review This Month, Make It This One

Mark Danner on ‘Guantánamo Diary’ in the New York Times Book Review — devastating, but essential

On one point nearly all Americans are united: They don’t want to think about the prisoners being held, even now, at Guantánamo Bay. From fans of Fox News to NPR addicts to decades-long Nation subscribers, it’s a subject that has festered far too long in our collective unconscious; it’s painful, for many of us, even to hear it raised.

On January 25, I read Scott Shane’s New York Times daily review of a weird event of a book called Guantánamo Diary and was fascinated and amazed and appalled all at once to learn of a book written by a detainee at Guantánamo named Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Shane’s review was potent and adroit. He opens with a reference to an interrogator asking Slahi about events in Iraq in 2003 — though he’d been in U.S. captivity since 2001 — and closes with a haunting question from the book: “So has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks?”

I made a mental note to give the book more time, maybe later when I saw it on the remainder table of a bookstore or came across the paperback. But deep down I was aware I’d probably slide by without a deeper bout of introspection. Then Mark Danner ruined my plans.

For those of you unfamiliar with Danner’s work, his New Yorker article on the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion is a spectacular piece of work, a stunningly effective evocation of a sickening episode, morally serious and rigorous in its attention to detail. I know I’m not alone in ranking the article among the all-time great high-impact pieces to make a splash in that magazine — maybe not quite up there with John Hersey on Hiroshima, but in the same conversation. The work later appeared in book form and remains the best known of Danner’s books.

Danner wrote the lead review in today’s New York Times Book Review, an essay that fleshes out the substance and moral importance of Guantánamo Diary with such quietly devastating impact, I found myself nearly shaking with revulsion even hours after I’d read it.

A word here on overheated political discussion. I reported from Central America for several months in the late ’80s, eager to find out for myself what was going on down there, leery of believing all of what I read, whether in the L.A. Times or progressive press. I was even briefly — very briefly — up in the mountains talking to guerrillas of the F.M.L.N. I’m a huge admirer of Archbishop Óscar Romero and his work. At the same time, I do think there has been a tendency on the left at times to lean hard on outrage and indignation at the cost of a search for deeper understanding. Danner is a writer for whom outrage and indignation are always present, but more as a background hum of awareness; he’s always focused on laying down the paving stones that might build a path toward whatever glimpses of deeper understanding might present themselves.

Here is his opening paragraph, and I’m curious how many of you could read it and not want to read further:

“On or about Sept. 11, 2001, American character changed,” Danner writes. “What Americans had proudly flaunted as ‘our highest values’ were now judged to be luxuries that in a new time of peril the country could ill afford. Justice, and its cardinal principle of innocent until proven guilty, became a risk, its indulgence a weakness. Asked recently about an innocent man who had been tortured to death in an American ‘black site’ in Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney did not hesitate. ‘I’m more concerned,’ he said, ‘with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.’ In this new era in which all would be sacrificed to protect the country, torture and even murder of the innocent must be counted simply ‘collateral damage.’”

It’s uncomfortable to be confronted with such thoughts, but I’d argue it’s the civic responsibility of every U.S. citizen to reflect, at least fleetingly, on what our country does in our name. But this is not the forum for lectures or obvious hectoring. The point is: Danner has the years of experience behind him to bring to this subject a depth of understanding that is rare. It’s worth taking a hike through this rugged terrain with him. Slahi’s story, heavily redacted, nevertheless carries a literary power that Danner compares to the works of Dostoyevsky, Beckett, and Kafka.

“If guilt is assumed, how to prove innocence?” Danner wonders. “And as with Kafka’s Joseph K., the third great literary spirit looming over these pages, the signs of Slahi’s guilt are everywhere: He fought in Afghanistan in the early 1990s with Al Qaeda (then indirectly supported by the United States); his distant cousin and sometime brother-in-law became a key bin Laden spiritual adviser; he had studied in Germany, like the 9/11 conspirators; had prayed at the same Montreal mosque as the ‘millennium’ plotter; had known the 9/11 planner Ramzi bin al-Shibh. These signs and others meant he fit the profile, Slahi says, of ‘a high-level, smart-beyond-belief terrorist.’ That will be the American interrogators’ premise, and nothing the Mauritanians and Jordanians will tell them, let alone what Slahi will say in the months of increasingly brutal interrogation, can alter their view. Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from The Trial:

“‘The rules have changed. What was no crime is now considered a crime.’

“‘But I’ve done no crimes, and no matter how harsh you guys’ laws are, I have done nothing.’”

Slahi remains at Guantánamo, but his words are spreading all over the world. Mark Danner is one of many flagging this powerful work for our consideration, but he just might have been the most effective in bringing home the book’s larger importance. Criticism this powerful is rare and deserves to be celebrated — and widely read.