Can This Book Close Guantanamo?
Murder at Camp Delta
by Joseph Hickman
Simon & Schuster (2015), 256 pp
I used to teach at North Carolina A&T, the historically black college that graduated the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. A&T does not embrace Mohammed, or KSM, as he’s sometimes known, and who can blame them for excluding him from their brochures, their list of famous alumni like Jesse Jackson? Sure, Mohammed chose to go to a historically black college in the 1980s for a reason, but what does the story of race have to do with the Global War on Terror and this man who has been water-boarded more than one hundred and eighty times?
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who admitted to beheading The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl, may be the only name most people recognize when confronted with the problem of America’s most notorious prison camp, Guantánamo Bay. Joseph Hickman would like you to remember three more: Ali Abdullah Ahmed, Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser al-Zahrani.
Murder at Camp Delta is a first-hand account of June 9, 2006, the night these men died while Hickman served as Sergeant of the Guard. According to the official government story, the inmates died in their cells. But Hickman, who had a better view of the prison than perhaps any other soldier on site, saw the three men leave their cells in a mysterious white van. He watched the van as it drove toward a secret facility called Camp No.
Hickman begins his story by establishing his credibility as a patriotic American who has not only served his country as a Marine and as a member of the National Guard, but also as a man with experience in the American prison system. In the mid 1990s, Hickman worked in Baltimore as a prison transport officer. He is, thus, a writer who is intimate with the standard operating procedures of lawful detention.
Before he arrives at Camp Delta, where the prisoners are kept, Hickman calls our attention to what at first seem like minor discrepancies, the racism he experiences during his platoon’s training, the way all of the blacks and Latinos were segregated into one platoon, his. Once he and his men arrive, the narrative explodes with intensity:
I didn’t see my first beating until my second week . . . I was about sixty feet away in the tower and could see everything happen clearly as they entered the cell block. As soon as they reached the detainee’s cell, the guard slammed the luckless inmate into the outer wall. An instant later, the guard punched him in the face. The detainee went down, and two other guards who were on duty in the cell block rushed in and started kicking him. After a good minute there was blood all over the floor.
Hickman does not write for the faint of heart. We feel the Cuban heat. We hear the screaming of the detainees. We see the base as a segregated space of compartmentalized duties where everyone is bound to secrecy and thus a stranger to each other. We hear lectures about the importance of protecting and respecting the iguanas on the island, feel the banana rats that rub up against the legs of soldiers as they attempt to watch movies during downtime. We see wild-bearded prisoners playing soccer, guards abusing them ritualistically and relentlessly. One prisoner, with a prosthetic leg, is repeatedly kicked so the prosthesis falls off, over and over, ostensibly for the sake of the soldier’s entertainment. A guard named Monster calls a prisoner a “sand nigger” and kicks him. Hickman writes: "I thought the Baltimore jails I’d worked in could be bad, but Camp Delta was just bedlam. Complete chaos."
It gets worse. Just as Hickman is beginning to realize that many of the detainees are not terrorists at all and may, in fact, be human beings, he is forced to put down a riot by a group of hunger strikers whose agitation reaches a feverish pitch. The fight that ensues involves a war of urine, feces, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and anything the detainees and guards can get their hands on. This is shortly before the night of June 9.
The virtues of Murder at Camp Delta are many. It would be easy, after the trauma Hickman witnessed, to err on the side of hyperbole. But his narrative is tight and measured. He walks the tightrope. His allegiance to his country and to the humanity of these detainees requires him to constantly reassure the reader that he doesn’t sympathize with terrorists, men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He draws us slowly into his suspicions and reservations. He is skeptical of everything. His eyes are open. He lets us know that he doesn’t trust conspiracy theories even as he and a team of lawyers and law students begin to unravel a massive and shameful government conspiracy.
Hickman’s story reflects poorly on our government, particularly Theresa McHenry of the Department of Justice, Admiral Harry Harris of the United States Navy, and Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense. Hickman is a humble storyteller, constantly granting latitude to all the players involved, but many of these people, despite Hickman’s generosity, come across as grossly incompetent, if not criminally negligent.
Ali Abdullah Ahmed, Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser al-Zahrani were low-level combatants at best. They were young men handed over to our government by warlords for bounty. None of them were charged with a crime. By 2006, Al-Utaybi “had been cleared for release.” But in Murder at Camp Delta, we see these men treated like animals. After they died under American care, medical personnel at Gitmo declared their cause of death to be suicide by hanging. However, when their bodies were returned to their families, their necks were missing.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Toward the end of this courageous and compelling story, Hickman writes: “When I arrived at Gitmo with my unit, I believed we were guards protecting America from the worst of the worst. But by the time I’d gathered and sifted through all the relevant documents, I realized that all of us who arrived there, even Admiral Harris, had entered an intelligence operation in which no normal military rules or codes applied.”
This is a book about how to tell a lie and how to get away with murder, how to use the law to enable lawlessness. This is also a book about racism, people who are seen and treated as less than human. By leaving the military and joining a team of lawyers and law students at Seton Hall who have helped him investigate this story, Joseph Hickman has challenged that lie and the culture within the American government that continues to let that lie and that lawlessness live. Murder at Camp Delta may be the book that finally closes Guantánamo Bay.