Torture shatters the soul. Torture survivors see their world through a broken mirror, misshapen and grotesque, all sharp angles and scattered shards. Flashes of memory crash together in jumbled confusion, bits of a fractured identity skitter like teeth knocked from a fighter’s mouth, a choking shame rises from deep within. Torture destroys what makes us human.
That’s what Majid Khan told the military commission panel when he described the savagery he endured at the hands of the CIA. He didn’t use my language. He used the words we reserve for blows to the body. Words like rectum and rape. Gagged. Hung. Nude. He used the language for appeals to a shared humanity. Pleaded. Mercy. And the word that all torture survivors have burned into their brain. Ignored.
Khan was arrested in 2003 and imprisoned at CIA black sites for three years. In 2006, the Agency shipped him to Guantanamo and transferred him to DOD custody, where he remains. He cooperated with his torturers (to no avail), pleaded guilty in 2012, continued to cooperate with investigators for another decade, and eleven days ago finally appeared before a military commission jury. There he told eight senior military officers what led him to al Qaeda, and what the United States did to him in return. The press covered the event but, with the exception of Spencer Ackerman and Carol Rosenberg, did not do it justice. That’s what happens when torture becomes routine. People stop paying attention.
But in our blinkered determination to move quickly to the next crisis—the next high-stakes Supreme Court argument or preventable political failure—the risk is great that we overlook the transcending importance not simply of Khan’s statement but the jury’s response.
The CIA opened its first black site in March 2002. When it began torturing Khan a year later, Greta Thurnberg was eight weeks old, Missouri Senator and rightwing firebrand Josh Hawley had not attended his first law school lecture and Barack Obama was an obscure Illinois state senator. Facebook would not exist for another 11 months and no one had heard of an iPhone. Yet it was not until October 2021, nearly nineteen years after the crime, that Khan was allowed to appear before the world and reveal what happened to him.
This was deliberate; governments that torture deny in public what they did in secret. To make the denial credible, victims must not speak. But isolation serves another purpose, equally pernicious but less readily grasped. It prevents victims from revealing themselves as complete human beings. Without form or voice, post-9/11 prisoners exist only as disembodied avatars of evil, menacing images on a screen. They do not love or laugh or mourn. They have no frailty, no grief, no regret. They lack what all humans possess: a past that brought them to this day and a will that can take them elsewhere. Isolation finishes what torture begins: it robs a victim of the things that make us human.
That is why Khan’s testimony was so important. By explaining the path that led him to al Qaeda, sharing the pain he feels for the wrong he did, and disclosing the torture the CIA inflicted, he not only broke the government’s hold on him, he reclaimed his humanity. Yes, he remains imprisoned. But he is no longer a cardboard cutout, propped up next to a podium. He is a human being. Flawed. Weak. Sorrowful. Which is to say, he is one of us.
If you think this only matters to Khan, then you do not understand the seduction of demonization. The idea that some among us are beyond the circle of human concern, and that wise and powerful leaders can decide who “they” are and act on that decision, is the most dangerous idea known to humanity.
There are no numbers to count the misery this delusion has produced. It divides entire populations, dooming them to an endless cycle of war and retaliation. It launched every genocide, every pogrom, and every colonial conquest. It is in the mind of every Klansman and the law of every apartheid state. And it is the belief that sustained the CIA torture program. The discovery that the monster is just a man is therefore liberating, a long step toward the ultimate freedom: the realization that there is no them, there is only us.
And that is what seven senior U.S. military officials on Majid Khan’s panel told the United States government. They didn’t use my language. They used the language of constitutional betrayal. Due process. Disregard. Affront. Justice. They used the language of national values, damning the abuse heaped upon Khan as “closer to [the] torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history” and “a stain on the moral fiber of America.”
But most of all, they used the language of shared humanity, insisting that Khan is, and has always been, within the circle. He was “a young man reeling from the loss of his mother,” “a vulnerable target” for recruitment no different from “many others.” “He is remorseful and not a threat for future extremism.” In short, he has a past that brought him to this day and a will that can take him elsewhere. He is human. He is one of us. Seven of eight panel members, each writing in their own hand, joined the letter.
The panel recommended clemency for Khan. In the law, clemency pairs with mercy and is extended in those cases that “merit an exemption from punishment.” More than eighteen years ago, Khan begged his torturers for the same mercy. They ignored him. In a courtroom in Cuba, his plea was finally heard. May we all listen.