A Child Left Behind

Kenneth Crab Oct 4, 2011

You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo
Directed by Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez

“You don’t like the truth” sounds like a less dramatic riff on Jack Nicholson’s much-quoted “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” in A Few Good Men (1992). Nicholson’s character, a colonel in command of Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, launches his outburst to justify a weak young marine’s murder for the sake of consolidating the strength of the corps and securing American borders pre-9/11. Sixteen year old Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, detained at Guantánamo prison after allegedly killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, voices his more demure line as a resigned rebuttal of interrogators illegally trying to coax him into an admission of guilt. Post 9/11, the justice system celebrated in A Few Good Men – a military court holding a high-ranking officer accountable for the brutal violation of an individual private’s human rights – has been reversed, and the kind of clandestine ‘code red’ order issued by the colonel has replaced fair trial as the obscene judicial norm of military commissions in the War on Terror.

The documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days in Guantánamo is structured around footage drawn from 7 hours of surveillance video – the only material of its kind – recorded during Khadr’s questioning by two CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) agents in February 2003 and declassified by the Canadian Supreme Court in July 2008. Veteran filmmakers Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez defuse the cameras’ voyeuristic perspective by having commentators on Khadr’s predicament (including his mother and sister, his former cell mates, his defense attorneys, the US Navy lawyer assigned as his military council, the interrogator who took pity on him at Bagram prison and the Toronto Star reporter who wrote a book on the case) watch and react to the blurry images of his subjection.

Like pieces of an elusive puzzle, three viewpoints are conjoined into a fractured visual frame, further abstracted by the masking of the visitors’ identities and the occasional excision of audio on security grounds. This suitably minimal mode of representation – only a few redundant touches remain, such as the titles added to convey the spirit of each day, and a psychiatrist’s analysis of proceedings – matches not only Khadr’s breakdown over the course of four days, but also the eerily schematic, painfully clumsy approach the agents deploy to pry loose any kind of information from him. The shared Canadian heritage they invoke is exposed as a cheap ruse, and the Subway sandwiches and McDonald’s meals they offer as awkward props, once Khadr realizes that they have come to exploit rather than help him. When they repudiate his torture and deprivation of medical treatment after incurring multiple serious injuries, and basically state that they have no reason to worry about his situation because they’re not in it, the scenes that unfold resemble a grotesque biopolitical experiment as much as an outrageous, sad reality.

The nature of the intelligence they aim to glean from him never becomes clear, and their questions increasingly denote less of a pointed inquiry than a desperate plea (“If you don’t know for certain, I’m sure you have some good theories”), geared toward self-sustaining – anything the prisoner divulges validates the interrogative process – instead of informative goals. Ironically, the results tend to be self-defeating. When Khadr confides to the agents that some of his answers were lies because he feared more torture, they save themselves against his retraction by asking how they know that’s not another lie. On a grander scale, but in the same vein, late last year the military commissions saved themselves from having the Khadr case go to trial – a potentially embarrassing first – when he accepted a plea bargain conditional upon confessing that he planted roadside explosives and killed a US soldier with a hand grenade just prior to his capture in 2002 – allegations we hear him repeatedly and unequivocally deny throughout the film.

Once again, Omar Khadr said what they wanted him to say out of fear, this time of a life sentence instead of the 8 years he ended up agreeing to serve. He was 15 at the time of the alleged killing, had been placed in a house of bomb-making Taliban members by his father (a meanwhile deceased former charity worker turned Al Quaeda supporter, who became friends with Osama Bin Laden) and got embroiled in the pandemonium of a firefight when they were besieged by American troops. The attack left him a sole survivor. He was shot in the back and shoulders, his upper body was covered in shrapnel, he sustained wounds to his thigh, knee, ankle and foot, and he lost consciousness for a week after he was found in the rubble.

Regardless of the unlikelihood of Khadr having thrown the grenade, he should at least have been recognized as a child soldier – treated like a juvenile and attributed battlefield immunity. Neither of these rights was respected, nor was his citizen status honored when the Canadian government refused to demand his repatriation. The film informs us that Khadr is the first child prosecuted for war crimes since the concept was originated during the Nuremberg Trials. When he is released, he will have spent 16 years behind bars, and enter history as arguably the most tragic victim of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unlawful combatant’ designation, coined under the previous presidency and unscrupulously upheld under the current one.

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