Forgive us our Sins: Guantanamo and our Aversion to Remorse

“To dehumanize another human being is…a process and a programming. It takes energy and reinforcement to deny what is self-evident in another member of one’s own species.” P. 141

p.142 “A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action taken against them is seen as reasonable.”

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 2020

According to the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University, moral injury is “the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.”

In an article by Sonya B. Norman, PhD and Shir Maguen, PhD, called “Moral Injury”, for the National Center for PTSD, the authors write, “In order for moral injury to occur, the individual must feel like a transgression occurred and that they or someone else crossed a line with respect to their moral beliefs. Guilt, shame, disgust and anger are some of the hallmark reactions of moral injury.”

My own emphasis here, in terms of the last paragraph, is on the word “feel”. Because it seems that most Americans do not feel like the military torture as enabled by the Bush Administration and continued for years after, has in fact been and continues to be, a transgression of their moral values. Those of us who have watched from afar are also conceivably capable of experiencing moral injury. Since once we witnessed footage of the torture, we did in some way act as witnesses, individually and as a nation; as a nation, in essence we have failed to prevent its continuation.

We failed to apologize; we failed to atone; we failed to attempt to begin to make up for the damage done; we failed to prosecute the military personnel, the psychologists, the political leaders responsible. And we failed to, as a country, gather together to study the acts of reckless abandonment of values that stand for constitutional insistence that a detainee be told of his/her rights. We failed to honor those rights and we failed to insist on action taken against the illegality of including testimony given as a result of duress, let alone as the result the obscene brutality of torture. We have been shown; we can see examples on any website we choose to research. Or even better, right now, at this moment in time, we can consciously decide to see and show and share the new film, “The Mauritanian”.

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If large groups of people were to decide to apply religious/Christian/Jewish/Muslim (and more) principles and guiding teachings to this issue, there could conceivably be a shift. If people such as the US officer — Lt. Col. Stuart Couch — assigned to the prosecution in Guantanamo and played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film — put their principles and religious convictions into real life as he did, things would have been and might still be different. There a US officer and prosecuting attorney did actually quit the case because of the torture he learned about. Couch suffered the stings of moral injury and that translated into his ethics leading his way out of the morass of a case drowning in illegalities and sadistic atrocities.

If “The Mauritanian” were to be shown at large in churches and synagogues and mosques and town halls, to liberals and conservatives, I wonder if some hearts and minds might open. Until such a moment I fear what I have read and heard and thought — something of which I have become convinced: when we render another person or group subhuman, we no longer are bothered by what happens to them.

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When we felt the fury and rage and helplessness and the grief after the attacks of 9/11, many of us were blinded. We had to find a way to attach blame so as to assign value to our losses. When we felt overcome by this mixture of feelings, many of us were ready to respond to the call to attack and to kill those deemed as the perpetrators. It was easier to be more interested in seeing blood than in finding truth. It was hard to be interested in knowing whether what we were given as so-called information satisfied our thirst for revenge rather than our need for truth. And while this urge for revenge can be understandable, our leaders in essence indirectly humiliated us by treating us like sheep who would follow their campaign for bloodshed that led us right into their campaigns for torture. We were encouraged to perpetuate our self-image as innocent victims, who could never see ourselves through the eyes of the others, of the enemies that were the enemies because we were told they were.

Mohamedou Slahi wrote a memoir in 2015 (Guantanamo Diary) — before being freed in 2016 — about his 14 years of torture and injustice at Guantanamo. Full of terrible stories, it is also a book graced with his fortune of meeting some truly compassionate military personnel as well as incredibly smart and impassioned lawyers. There comes through, in the book and in the film the remarkable humanity and courage in Mr. Slahi — something I am not sure I have ever witnessed. I hope his story (and he is played brilliantly by Tahar Rahim) moves people to give a damn, to give serious attention and to even risk the experience of remorse, and of moral injury for real.

Currently, as we speak, there are still detainees languishing and terrorized in Guantanamo. The people who have defended Mr. Slahi, the film makers, Jodie Foster, who stars in the film, along with Amnesty International, the ACLU and more, want us to know and care that Guantanamo needs to be closed.

We can read of police atrocities in Myanmar and be appalled by the Saudi initiated killing of Jamal Khashoggi and we are right. But if we are not capable of moral injury about acts committed by our friends or relatives or fellow Americans, we are bereft of the humanity we need. If we are immune to caring about acts of torture allowed to continue because of our own indifference or our fury which allows only for revenge at any price, we are in big trouble as human beings.

I am still idealistic and passionate enough to feel it is our job and perhaps our only hope as a species, to grow up, to evolve so we learn to appreciate our imperfections, our flaws, our terrible sides and our potential to do and feel terrible things. Then — if we integrate these parts along with the more beautiful parts — we no longer need to have the kind of hate that has the conviction that we are always right and that we deserve to demonize those different from us, those whom we have painted as only evil.

We should start, perhaps, to be more scared of leaders who create a path that apparently is supposed to address a given problem, but who have no interest in evaluating the implications. We should be scared enough to begin to question our own tendency to allow these authorities to stay on a pedestal without developing alternatives by which we can insist on more responsible and accountable guidance. As long as our leaders or our religions or our narrow and frightened minds insist on demonizing rather than investigating, we will be destined to dehumanize at any cost.

And then — once we insist on dehumanizing — we will not remotely care about the plights of people we have decided are worth nothing or less.

How human are we then?

Lastly, “The Mauritanian”, the movie. Where to watch and the trailer: https://decider.com/2021/02/11/the-mauritanian-where-to-watch/.

A psychotherapist, a New Yorker living between Colorado and Italy (in good times) I am passionate about the role of emotions and awareness for evolving,sanity

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