I have got to say that this post, “The Mauritanian Movie Recommendation” is going to require you to do some heavy lifting. This isn’t the film recommendation where you jump up and high five the person next to you because of the sweet juke at the end. I mean, there is a juke with The Mauritanian… that’s for sure. But it isn’t the sort of juke that will make you happy. And this is me saying I’m totally okay with that. Why? Because your life, regardless of how it’s going, is going infinitely better than this guys. And I just can’t believe I’m a part of a country that would deny basic freedoms and levels of justice to a single individual like this.
I’m guessing that if you are even minimally versed in recent political history you already know what this movie is all about. And if not, all I have to do is say that the film is about a Gitmo Detainee and … BOOM, now you know everything you need to know. Right? It’s possible that this film is about someone from Mauritania that probably trained with Osama bin Laden. Check. It’s possible that it’s about the anger that rippled through America as a result of the Twin Tower chaos that happened on 9/11. Check. It might also be about the world wide roll-up of pretty much anyone and everyone that even circulated anywhere near Bin Laden. Check. It’s probably about the creation of a hell hole on Cuban soil called Gitmo that allows America to operate outside of the United States Judicial reach. Check. It might also be about the years of cajoling and decently pleasant interrogation tactics before the U.S. went completely off the deep end and began horrific levels of torture on this particular detainee. (and the rest.) Check & Check. And it might also be about his horribly uneven struggle to even get the Mauritanian’s Writ of Habeus Corpus in front of a judge. Yeah, that’d be a check.
Most Americans though, are tragically ignorant of the real details that are closest to the heart of the men that are trapped inside Gitmo. And before I go any further I have to say this… yes, I’m a red-blooded American. Yes, Uncle Sam gets my salute, and the flag will also get me to remove my hat, and cover my heart as I pledge my allegiance. But my salute, and my heart also believes that America, and the idea it represents should stand for way better than this. Yes, I understand that we as a people are pissed. And I also understand that we spent over $720,000,000,000 on the military in 2020 (or 3.4% of our GDP). And so we utilized that military heft to circle the wagons and bring in literally anyone and everyone that even circulated in that world in any way, shape or form. And the world assisted us in hopes that the fire of our passions would be assuaged. And these detainees at Gitmo were largely abandoned. Because, obviously they are guilty. Wait, WHAT? This is how America roles our justice these days? I thought the dance was, bring your evidence, and let a judge, or a jury, decide if it holds up. Otherwise we have succumbed to our most base instincts and we are no better than other dictators around the world. That we are clever enough to not let them set foot on American soil is just parsing in my mind. We are still morally accountable.
Oh, by the way, have I mentioned lately how little I care about whether you agree with me on this point? None. Not even one iota.
What I don’t like about the movie is how it skirts past so much assumed knowledge. And without it, you might be forgiven for seeing the movie as a liberal, ACLU, marketing piece. Which, it isn’t. I did enjoy how both the defense attorney and the prosecution found themselves on the same side – which illustrates the problem we are in with regard to the detainees. But ultimately, this movie requires that you learn so much more than the movie can possibly teach you.
What’s funny to me is that one of the strongest pieces of evidence the government throws at these men is that they trained with Osama Bin Laden. And yes, many of these men did just that. Woah. Yeah, I get it, that really sounds damning. But do you even realize that throughout the eighties, Bin Laden was funded by the Saudis, and armed by the CIA? And, oh, by the way, these men did our bidding by concentrated their fight against the Russians? I’ll wait. Let that sink in. (Matthew 26:52 anyone?)
I’d guess, something like what… 90% of Americans don’t know that? Probably? OK, 80%. Whatever. Barely no one. So, if you round up men who trained with Osama bin Laden in the eighties, did you just scoop up anti-Russian ideologues? Most likely. All I’m saying is that it’s messy and confusing. What we like to paint as a black and white crime, might very well be a lot more complicated than that. Are they innocent? I don’t know, but if we aren’t willing to legitimately research the allegations, and realistically chase the evidence wherever it leads, then we will never know. Which brings me to a few books and podcasts I want to recommend to you in this vein.
Guantánamo Diary – When The Mauritanian was first published as Guantánamo Diary in 2015—heavily redacted by the U.S. government—Mohamedou Ould Slahi was still imprisoned at the detainee camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, despite a federal court ruling ordering his release, and it was unclear when, or if, he would ever see freedom. In October 2016 he was finally released and reunited with his family. During his fourteen-year imprisonment the United States never charged him with a crime. Now he is able to tell his story in full, with previously censored material restored. This searing diary is not merely a vivid record of a miscarriage of justice, but a deeply personal memoir—terrifying, darkly humorous, and surprisingly gracious. The Mauritanian is a document of immense emotional power and historical importance. Get it here.
THE OTHER LATIF – This is a brilliantly researched and reported podcast by Latif Nasser (of Radiolab) who always believed his name was uniquely his own. Until one day when he makes a shocking discovery that he shares his name with another man: Detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government paints a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and an advisor to Osama bin Laden. Nasser’s lawyer claims that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda. This clash leads Radiolab’s Latif into a years-long investigation, trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do. Along the way, Radiolab’s Latif reflects on American values and his own religious past, and wonders how his namesake, a fellow nerdy, suburban Muslim kid, traveled such a strikingly different path. Get it here.
Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 – While the devastating images of the 9/11 attacks are seared into our national collective memory, most of the events that led up to that day took place out of public view. Over eight episodes, Blindspot: The Road to 9/11, brings to light the decade-long “shadow struggle” that preceded the attacks. Hosted by WNYC reporter Jim O’Grady and based on HISTORY’s television documentary Road to 9/11 (produced by Left/Right), this podcast series draws on interviews with more than 60 people — including FBI agents, high-level bureaucrats, journalists, experts, and people who knew the terrorists personally — and weaves them together with original reporting to create a gripping, serialized narrative audio experience. Blindspot: The Road to 9/11 is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Get it here.
Guantánamo By Any Other Name – A podcast episode diving into our understanding of Gitmo. “This week, President Obama made another pitch to close the Guantánamo detention facility — calling it a “stain” on the country’s record. Congress balked immediately, and GOP presidential hopefuls pledged to keep it open and even fill it. But are they all talking about the same Guantánamo? Carol Rosenberg, who has covered the beat for The Miami Herald since the prison opened in 2002, talks to Bob about how the public understanding of Guantánamo has shifted since then.” Get it here.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – To what extent did America’s best intelligence analysts grasp the rising thread of Islamist radicalism? Who tried to stop bin Laden and why did they fail? Comprehensively and for the first time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll recounts the history of the covert wars in Afghanistan that fueled Islamic militancy and sowed the seeds of the September 11 attacks. Based on scrupulous research and firsthand accounts by key government, intelligence, and military personnel both foreign and American, Ghost Wars details the secret history of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan (including its covert operations against Soviet troops from 1979 to 1989), the rise of the Taliban, the emergence of bin Laden, and the failed efforts by U.S. forces to find and assassinate bin Laden in Afghanistan. Get it here.
The Looming Tower – A gripping narrative that spans five decades,The Looming Tower explains in unprecedented detail the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of al-Qaeda, and the intelligence failures that culminated in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Lawrence Wright re-creates firsthand the transformation of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri from incompetent and idealistic soldiers in Afghanistan to leaders of the most successful terrorist group in history. He follows FBI counter-terrorism chief John O’Neill as he uncovers the emerging danger from al-Qaeda in the 1990s and struggles to track this new threat. Packed with new information and a deep historical perspective, The Looming Tower is the definitive history of the long road to September 11. Get it here.
There is a moment in The Mauritanian wherein Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the once government prosecution lawyer, says to Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) the defense attorney representing Mahamedou Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim), if this son of a bitch is guilty, I’ll stick the needle in him myself. And I’m right there with him emotionally. Sure, if there is guilt on these Gitmo detainees for what happened in New York, or the Pentagon, or a field in Pennsylvania, then sign me up… and hand me the needle. But if they are innocent, by God, let them go. It smacks of something deeper here. About our ideals in the rule of law, and about our commitment to truth. Otherwise? What we are doing today in Gitmo? It’s just blood lust.
To be really honest here, I am not advocating for one side or the other. I’m just encouraging us all to educate ourselves. I tried to post a random smattering of sourced material here. There’s TONS more where that came from. But these are all books and podcasts I’ve enjoyed and will get you started on this larger topic.
Edited by: CY
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