Tribal Bureaucracy

The phrase “All is fair in love and war,” has various attributions, but it certainly has a direct hold on the popular imagination.  But I wonder if those that cite it truly believe in it.  What I think we tend to mean when we say this is, “If the side I’m rooting for does something that helps them win, I generally approve.”  But if the other side does it . . .

War also tends to come with a relentless osmosis.  So the English and French cried “foul” when the Germans started using chemical weapons in W.W. I, and then used them themselves.  The same happened in W.W. II.  First the Nazi’s bombed London and then the Allies retaliated in more than kind.  It is this spiritual cost of war that often gets ignored amidst the loss of life.

These things flitted through my mind as I read the painful and at times darkly comic Guantanamo_diaryGuantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi.  The scars and trauma of 9/11 come through on almost every page of this book, and if his narrative speaks even half-truths, we have much to mourn and much to fear about who we are as a people.

Briefly, Slahi received an excellent education growing up in Mauritania, gaining fluency in French and German along with Arabic (in prison he learned English well enough to write his diary in English).  He traveled a lot as well throughout Europe and also visited Canada.  During the 1990’s he traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Russians (so he claims) where he certainly met others in the Taliban and Al Queda.  He returned to his native Mauritania.  While there he was arrested and questioned in relationship to the Millennium plot, and then released.  His government, at the request/likely insistence of the United States  then asked him to come in for questioning again after 9/11.  He agreed to come in voluntarily to “clear the air,” so to speak, and from that moment on, disappeared into the bureaucratic abyss.  He has yet to be charged with anything, and yet remains in detention.

Shahi comes off as a very sympathetic figure in his narrative.  Perhaps we should expect this.  We naturally sympathize and accept the point of view of the main character of almost any story.  But surely we might just as naturally wonder to what degree we can trust his account of events.

In a recent podcast interview, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman discuss Klosterman’s recent GQ article on Tom Brady.  In their remarks both agreed that our culture has a serious problem.  Whatever narrative emerges first (in this case they were discussing the ridiculous nature of “Deflate-gate”) embeds itself deeply in the American consciousness.  Whatever narrative emerges next not only has to fight for space in the national narrative, it has the unfair burden of having to also disprove the first narrative, even though its only “crime” was to be known second and not first.  Perhaps this is not only a modern American problem — perhaps this has always been the case with humanity in general.  But if so the problem seems accentuated in our day by the fact that we have a very short national attention span and will quickly to move from one issue to the next.

Quite possibly, this same problem exists when reading Slahi’s diary.  We should not hold his account to a higher standard than accounts from our own government who initially branded him as a mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, just because this comes from “our side” and it was the story we heard first.  We should treat his account as truthful unless otherwise contradicted by some other source.  Admittedly, this is difficult as contradicting him might reveal classified information.  Such is the dilemma of democracy in the 21st century.*

Briefly the “case” against him:

  • He had been in Afghanistan and fought with Al-Qaida against the Russians.  His own words on this subject — “I fought with Al Qaida, but then we did not wage jihad against America.  They told us to fight against the Communists.  In the mid-90’s they wanted to wage jihad against America, but . . . I didn’t join them in that idea; that’s their problem. . . . I am completely independent of this problem.”
  • His brother-in-law, Abu Safs, was a high-ranking member of Al-Queda.  Alhough interestingly, we have documented transcripts of Safs urging AQ leadership not to proceed with the 9/11 attacks.  In turn, might this have meant that Slahi knew of the impending attacks?
  • He knew different languages and had traveled abroad a great deal.
  • The United States accepted that he had no knowledge of/participation in the Millennium plot.  But it became apparent that Slahi had not told the whole truth about other matters during this questioning, which even Slahi himself admits.  Apparently he denied knowing a man whom he did meet at one point for a short time (although we know nothing about the nature of their relationship). Might then he know other things about terrorists that he has not revealed?
  • In any case, a federal judge reviewed his case and found no basis to detain him any further.  After some outrage from some New York newspapers, the Obama administration appealed the decision, which has yet to come to trial again.  He remains in a bottomless, meaningless detention.

There appears to be very little else against him, and ten plus years of detention have yet to produce a single criminal charge.  It appears we have, as Marine prosecutor Col. Morris Davis commented, a case of, “a lot of smoke and no fire.”  Another interesting testimony comes from Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, a former prosecutor on the case.  He had left the military, but a good friend died in one of the planes on 9/11.  He decided to reenlist to, in his words, “get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States.”  Eventually he had a total change of heart and withdrew from the case.  He recounted in an interview his realization.

Right in the middle of this time . . . I was in church and we had a baptism.  We got to the part of the liturgy where the congregation repeats–I’m paraphrasing here–but the essence is that we respect the dignity of every human being and seek peace and justice on earth.  And when we spoke those words . . . I could have been the only one there.  You can’t come in here on Sunday and as a Christian ascribe to the dignity of every human being and . . . continue with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

Some may argue that while we do not have enough evidence to charge him with a crime, a very slim chance remains that Slahi is smart enough to pull a huge snow-job on us.  A chance remains that he may possibly know of some person we don’t know about yet that may seek to do us or others harm (though honestly, since he has been detained for so long, it seems he could know nothing about any possible plans).

Are we willing to take that chance?  To me it seems a really safe bet.

Ironically, it appears that his intellect worked against him in a Catch-22 fashion.  Interrogators admitted that they had nothing concrete to pin on him, but “smart people leave no traces.”  If he wasn’t smart, he would obviously be guilty . . .  because he would have left traces.  Being smart, he naturally left no traces of his guilt.

Such bizarre moments pockmarked his narrative.

For example, interrogators revisited one particular conversation he had with his brother in which Slahi urged him to “concentrate on school,” with an extended conversation about “tea and sugar.”  Since this came up in more than one interrogation, U.S. intel must have thought that such statements involved a code of some kind.  Shahi could not convince them otherwise.

Of course some detainees no doubt bear some measure of guilt.  One prisoner sought a plea-bargain with prosectors.  But this detainee wanted to be generous to Slahi, who resided in the cell next to his.  He would only accept a plea-bargain if they gave one to him as well.  Prosecutors would have loved to offer Slahi a deal, but do to so they would have to charge him with something, and despite repeated efforts, they could not come up with anything.

So the end result was no charge and no plea bargain, but instead a renewed insistence that he must be guilty of something, and so renewed interrogations.  After all, Slahi’s next door neighbor thought he was guilty.

A few final reflections . . .

I absolutely hate and abhor attempts to change meaning of words based on the “letter of the law.”  Interrogators subjected him to sexual molestation, sleep deprivation, forced continuous water drinking (to bring about constant urination and sleep deprivation), and the like.  They did not physically pummel him, but no matter.  He was tortured.  I beg us to call a spade a spade.

Shahi does not paint himself a brave resistance hero or a martyr for truth.  He routinely complains of his back pain.  He admits freely that he lied at points during torture and finally even implicated others, something he earlier vowed not to d0, simply to make the torture stop.  He hated certain guards, but liked others and even sympathized with their plight.  He mentioned several times that war brings out the best and worst on both sides.

Surprisingly, when he vented his anger — which was not often — he did so not at the United States but at his home country of Mauritania.  He saw the Mauritanian government as utter cowards for handing him over the U.S. with no specific charges, in direct violation of their constitution and his rights as a Mauritanian citizen.

Eventually he gained the privilege to see movies and watched Black Hawk Down with his interrogators and guards.  He did not enjoy the movie much, but the reaction of the Americans troubled him greatly.  Some soldiers cried bitterly for the Americans that died, no doubt justly.  But Slahi wondered why they shed no tears for the hundreds of Somalis who died, some of them no doubt forced to fight by a warlord dictatorship, some of them civilians.  Americans, Slahi mused, are essentially tribal and care for their own kind not just in preference to others, but to the exclusion of others.  In this we are not exceptional, but just like most anyone else. Ultimately, however, Shahi’s continued detention shows us entirely sacrificing his dignity and freedom on the slim chance that perhaps he knows (or once knew) something or someone.

I will pass over his experiences with guards who knew very little about Christianity trying to evangelize him amidst torture and illegal detention. Shahi, for his part, seemed to enjoy picking apart their arguments. But a few other comments on his opinions about Americans are amusing if not instructive:

Americans are just big babies.  In my country it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time.  And Americans worship their bodies.  They eat well.  [Name redacted] was like anyone else.  He bought more food than he needed, worked out even during duty, talked constantly [about sex], played computer games, and was very confused when it came to his religion.


Many young men and women join the U.S. forces under the misleading propaganda . . . which makes people believe that the Armed Forces are nothing but a big Battle of Honor.   . . . But the reality is a little bit different.  To go directly to the bottom line, the rest of the world thinks of Americans as revengeful barbarians.  That may be harsh, and I don’t believe the dead average American is a revengeful barbarian.  But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem.

A few brief comments on the blurbs on the jacket cover and other such comments made about the book.  Those that read it, like myself, emerge fairly convinced of at least Shahi’s legal innocence as well as liking him.  I believe that we have done a grave injustice to Slahi and his family that nothing can erase.  But some commentators fall into the tribalism that Slahi denounced, that Slahi himself avoids.  For some, the U.S. gets no sympathy at all.  They make no attempt to understand the serious intel dilemmas after the trauma of 9/11 we faced, no attempt to understand the gravity of our situation.  For them, the U.S. is a kind of “evil empire.”**

I think rather that we acted, and do still act, the way many frightened and confused people act when they have very little to comfort them.  I agree that we sometimes act foolishly and wrongly, but probably no more so than most other major powers.  We had a few strands of intel that might mean something . . . and we felt forced to act because not acting might possibly result in catastrophe.  It is a terrible situation, and it appears that we have done terrible things in its midst.

But I do not mean to let ourselves off the hook.  We no doubt  felt forced.  But in reality, we are simply selfish*** and will remain so as long as Slahi stays in the legal Neverland of Guantanamo.



*There is the added question of whether or not the various tortures he underwent may have altered his perception of the past.

**John le Carre must have been only too delighted to write a blurb for this book, as he been roasting the west in general, and the U.S. in particular, for years.  Alas for the bygone days of his great spy fiction from the 1960’s and 70’s.

***Via Marginal Revolution came this quote related to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Even 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?




Fun with Lists

A colleague of mine who also teaches history recently asked me to play an enjoyable game of “Name your Top Five Historical Events between the Roman Empire and the Reformation in western Europe.”

With some brief banter back and forth we came to an agreement fairly quickly on four and I inserted a fifth.  They are, in order of when they occurred,

  1. The conversion of Constantine, ca. 313 A.D.
  2. Charlemagne named Holy Roman Emperor, 800 A.D.
  3. The first Crusade, 1097 A.D.^
  4. The Black Plague ca. 1348 A.D.
  5. Columbus, 1492

As we considered these five, I rejoiced at our selections.  For, while the list is quite prosaic and hardly original, it reflects a shared worldview between us, and a shared philosophy of history.

For you see, the list has no technological innovations.  Not even the printing press!  I had to pat ourselves in the back in a moment of self-satisfaction.

Some context . . .

I like James Burke’s old show from the 1970’s Connections.  In a typical episode Burke will start with some everyday modern phenomena and then ask, “How did this come to be?”  He will then, by a serious of ingenious jumps and skips back in time, declare that, “If it were not for the discovery of the wood grouse in 1756 B.C., the modern computer would never have come to be.”

Or something like that.

I exaggerate, but sometimes Burke gets carried away.

In the first episode, Burke travels from a power outage in NYC to the invention of the plow in ancient Egypt (it actually makes some sense).  But implicit in Burke’s theme lies the idea that technology creates and then drives civilization.  I don’t buy it.  Yes, the plow probably helped ancient people produce more crops, but what brought people together in the first place?  Ok, people would gather by rivers for sure, but what would make them organize themselves into communities?

It would not be the plow.  Before the plow, some kind of common bond must have drawn people together — almost certainly a religious bond.*  Of course, it is this shared belief that still holds civilizations together today, not technology.

Admittedly not everything on that list involves a directly spiritual concern, so a brief defense of the selections seems in order:

Neither one of us thought Charlemagne’s title purely political.  It represented a hope of reorganizing society spiritually and culturally (yes, political as well) along more unified lines.  Some argue that the Holy Roman Empire never amounted to much, but it had a long run as a political and organizing force in Europe.

Whether or not the Crusades had justification in 1097, the conduct of the Crusaders and the ultimate failure of the enterprise seriously weakened the Church as an organizing force in European society.  From around 1200 A.D. on, the state had much more say than previously vis a vis the Church. Whether an improvement or not, certainly this represented a new means of how people interacted with one another.

The Black Plague killed millions, and in the process effectively ended the feudal system, which had governed Europe arguably since the time of Charlemagne.  In time a new middle class would arise with a new way of relating to one another

Columbus is in some ways a stand-in for Renaissance-era exploration as a whole.  As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues in his excellent book Pathfinders, exploration did not start based on new technological discoveries.  Exploration began because the way people viewed their place in the world had changed.  In that sense, Columbus is a stand-in for an entirely new way of thinking.

The printing press certainly had significance.  Probably it makes our top 10?  But the printing press has little effect without there first existing a desire to read, a desire to interact with the world in a different way through the printed page.  We should not imagine a world always hungry for books, just begging someone to invent a machine that could make them more accessible.

I am reminded, for example, of a story about Elizabeth I and toilets.  Apparently indoor plumbing was created in her day, and some enterprising inventors offered her the chance to use it. Who among us would refuse indoor plumbing?

She refused.  Having to go to the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.  The bathroom, in the form of the chamber pot, would come to her.  What good is being Queen if you can’t order the bathroom around anyway?

The story illustrates the point about the printing press.  It’s not about the invention, but the culture surrounding the invention that matters.  Culture and belief drive technology, and not vice-versa.


^In the interest of fairness, this represents my choice more so than an absolute unified agreement between the two of us.  As I mentioned, we were lock-step on the other four.

*Not surprisingly, armed with his materialistic view of history, Burke essentially reduces all of the religion and mysticism of Egypt down to applied science.

A Proud Death

Exposing oneself to older ideas has many benefits.  Such a statement is almost a cliche for someone in my line of work, but then every so often the reality of this truth hits one afresh.  The old world had much wisdom that we have lost.

One idea that struck me with particular force recently has to do with the early Church’s link between the reality of sin as it relates to fact of death.  For Adam and Eve, sin brought death, and their progeny inherit bodies of death.  After the Fall, sin now results from death.  That is, we sin because we know we will die.  Sin often originates in our rebellion against death.

We do this unfortunately, in a variety of ways.  We distract ourselves endlessly with extended consumption.*  When men reach my age they buy sports cars and get trophy wives in an attempt to feel young and powerful again.  All of us feel the need for self-preservation, so when we see a chance to “extend ourselves” and grow our kingdom we seize it, whether that means invading another country or cutting someone off in traffic.

The futility of such actions is obvious on a biological level — we will die.  But such actions do more than merely delay the inevitable.  By making death more distant, we lose our dominion over it and thereby give it more power over our lives.

This is the main theme of Philippe Aries’ book The Hour of our Death, which stands as a greatly expanded version of his Western Attitudes toward Death.  In that book he talks about the idea of a “tame” death in a more thematic manner. In this work, in minute and at times fascinating detail Aries gives the reader a multi-faceted look at how western man has died since the early Middle Ages.

I will try not to repeat myself too much from the review linked above.  He begins his study under the heading “The Tame Death.”   Essentially from the early Middle Ages, our approach to death consisted of . . .

  • A belief that death “politely” let one know of its imminent arrival.  This blessed those about to die, for it gave them a chance to say goodbye and reconcile with friends and family.
  • Rituals that governed the process of death for the dying, which included last rites
  • The rituals having the effect of “taming” death*

Aries concludes his first chapter by writing,

The fact that we keep meeting instances of the same general attitude toward death from Homer to Tolstoy does not mean we should assign a historical permanence exempt from variation.  .  . . But for 2000 years it resisted pressures in a world subject to change . . . this attitude toward death is like a bulwark of inertia and continuity.

It has by now been so obliterated from our culture that it is hard for us to imagine or understand it.

Thus, when we call this “familiar” death the tame death, we do not mean to say that it was once wild and is now domesticated.  On the contrary, we mean that it has become wild today when it used to be tame.

This “wild” state of death came about in distinct stages.

  1. Perhaps because of the plague, the later Middle Ages depicted the gruesomeness of death and the reality of death much more frequently in their artwork.  Death was far from “put aside,” but assumed a more terrible aspect.
  2. The late Renaissance made death more about the Last Judgment than redemption in their art.  Perhaps this happened as Renaissance culture knew that it had drifted from its medieval roots and sought through a kind of force — like shaking a patient — to regain some ground.
  3. Many Protestants abandoned this Catholic practice, but as is typical in such cases, swung the other way entirely.  Death no longer brought terror, but neither could it allow for mourning.  Some Puritans, for example, had encouragement to remarry within a month or two of the decease of their spouse.  Rather than fix the “problem” of death, this approach attempts to give death an unreality, which makes it ultimately abstract and impossible to tame.
  4. The scientific age believed that cemeteries were unhealthy places.  Burials stopped happening in or beside churches (located within the town) and got moved outside town limits.  Now, too, rituals involving the dying were in jeopardy, because of the risk of disease, infection, etc.  In suffering “medicalization,” death left the field of the Church and entered the field of science.
  5. The Romantic era of the “beautiful death” attempted to correct the Enlightenment approach.  But like the Puritans before them, they unintentionally swung unhelpfully in the other direction in two main ways: 1) The “beautiful death” imposed a burden on the dying to “get it right” — be tranquil, be composed, be “natural,” etc., and 2) In returning death to the provence of nature they believed they entered a beneficent realm.  But nature in truth (at least according to Aries) is arbitrary, and cannot be “tamed” on its own terms.  Thus, the impossibility of taming death in nature.
  6. The modern era has abandoned rituals of almost every kind that guide cultural practice.  Our societies do not pause in any way for death, unless it is perhaps the death of a statesmen or our military.  Other deaths in society do not register.  As the “ends” of our communal life have secularized, so too has death been secularized.  The whole notion of a “communion of saints,” or a “cloud of witnesses” has disappeared utterly from nearly all Protestant churches.  Without this sense of continuity or ritual, death has free reign, no controls, and again, becomes more terrible in aspect.

Aries published his book in 1981, perhaps the height of the modern medicalization of death.  With the advent of hospice care and other less invasive end of life medical practices we begin to move back in a more positive direction.  But we have a long way to go.

One key way back to a more proper understanding of death will involve a theological shift, as I hinted above.  If we persist in the idea that God resides “up there” while we remain “down here,” we will never understand death.  The same holds true for the departed.  Without the communion of saints, death will continue its lordship.  I quote extensively from Stephen Freeman’s Everywhere Present below to illustrate the point and show us the way forward.

At the time of my visit [to the St. Saba monastery] one of the brotherhood had “fallen asleep” two weeks earlier.  “We never say that a monk has died, ” our guide told us, and I suddenly imagined the unspokenness of death I knew so well [from living in America].  He continued, “We always say, in the words of Scripture, that they have “fallen asleep.”  But most we say this because we see them so often.

Now I knew I was in a different place.

“You see them?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  “They appear to monks all the time.  It’s nothing to see St. Saba on the stairs or elsewhere.”  The witness of the monk (who happened to be from San Francisco) was not a tale of the unexpected.  These were not ghostly visits he described, but the living presence of the saints who inhabit the same space as ourselves.  It is a one-storey universe.  Such stories . . . can be duplicated all over the monastic world.

The doctrine of the ancient Church is quite clear in this matter.  Those who have died are separated from us in the body, but the Church remains One.  There is not one church in heaven and another on Earth.




*Who doesn’t love Amazon Prime?  But my countenance fell upon reading a recent ad of theirs for same day shipping — “Patience no longer required.”