Discussion Guide for Students and Educators
* A special note: Discussing trauma, particularly torture, with students can in and of itself be a triggering event. It is important that students participate voluntarily in discussions and activities and that they are aware of mental and emotional health resources that are available to them.
The members of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows have worked for 19 years to turn the trauma and grief their families experienced into action for peace. We see a similar need for resiliency, merged with advocacy, arise as our lives are besieged by institutional racism, violence, and COVID-19.
In recognition of the 19th commemoration of 9/11 this year, members of Peaceful Tomorrows joined with international allies to present a series of virtual webinars focused on peace and reconciliation work around the world. This webinar, entitled “UNCOMMON BONDS: An Unlikely Friendship Between a 9/11 Family Member and A Detainee At Guantánamo” is the third in the series.
The discussion features September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows member Elizabeth Miller and former Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. The pair discussed their experiences as a family member who lost her father on 9/11, and as a detainee whose arrest led to 14 years at Guantánamo Bay prison. Both shared a path of nonviolent response to their anguish. Slahi’s experience is further documented in the newly released The Mauritanian.
Peaceful Tomorrows’ co-founder Colleen Kelly, who frequently travels to Guantánamo to monitor the pre-trial hearings, moderated the discussion.
Elizabeth Miller – Member, Peaceful Tomorrows: On 9/11, I lost my father, firefighter Douglas Miller. Through the years, I had focused on his acts of bravery in responding to the attacks. I wanted to demonstrate similar acts of bravery in my own way. I decided to study the Middle East, and North Africa, Islam, and terrorism. I learned about September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (PT) after researching the complexity of trials at Guantánamo Bay. I have been in communication with a former prisoner who was innocent, and never charged. I decided to explore the injustice further. I was so happy when I was told about PT, who acts as a leader, promoting peace and understanding in the face of tragedy. My education helped show me that I wanted to spread messages of forgiveness, and understanding, emphasizing that the terrible attacks were the actions of few, not the many. I would like to continue and raise awareness and focus about the beautiful and positive religious and cultural practices in the Middle East, and North Africa.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi – Author and Former Detainee at Guantánamo: Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a Mauritanian who was detained at Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge from 2002 until his release on October 17, 2016. Slahi wrote a memoir in 2005 while imprisoned, which the U.S. government declassified in 2012 with numerous redactions. The memoir was published as “Guantánamo Diary” in January 2015. Slahi wrote four other books whilst in detention, one of which he describes as being “about finding happiness in a hopeless place.” A film based on his diary, The Mauritanian, was released in February 2021.
Colleen Kelly – Co-founder, Peaceful Tomorrows : Colleen Kelly is a co-founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and currently serves as the chair of its Rule of Law Committee. She frequently travels to Guantánamo to monitor pre-trial hearings.
Before You Watch
- Review Key Vocabulary: advocacy, activism, justice, forgiveness, rule of law, terrorism, extradition, torture
- What do students already know about these terms?
- Provide a Purpose:
- In your educational setting, what is the purpose for students to watch the discussion? What do you want them to get out of this experience?
While You Watch (If Watching Together)
- Pause Frequently:
- After each panelist responds to the moderators’ question, consider pausing to check for understanding and to conduct an informal wellness check.
- Ask students to watch and listen for themes. What do the speakers’ responses have in common?
After You Watch
- Questions for Oral or Written Discussion/Reflection:
- Colleen refers to an “us against them” dynamic that has characterized responses to 9-11. What are the dangers of this polarized narrative? What reinforces this division and what can heal it?
- Elizabeth lost her dad when she was only 6 years old. What is the importance and impact of her memories? How did 9-11 affect young people who lost a parent?
- How did Elizabeth’s journey lead her to where she is today? What role did education play in her experience and understanding of 9-11, Islamic fundamentalism, and history?
- What formed the basis of Elizabeth’s and Mohamedou’s friendship? What role has social media and technology played in supporting their unlikely connection?
- Elizabeth speaks about feeling a sense of complicity in terms of Mohamedou’s detention at Guantánamo. Do you think that was a common or uncommon feeling? What are different ways that different people could respond to those feelings?
- Elizabeth expressed that she had support from her friends, family and partner but did not feel comfortable speaking out in other contexts. How does societal pressure impact people’s comfort in and ability to speak their truth?
- Colleen read a passage (p. 260) from Mohamedou’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary.” What does this passage point out in terms of American exceptionalism* and the double standard for Muslims and Christians in the world, when considered through an American lens? (*According to foreign policy analyst Stephen Walt, the concept of American exceptionalism “presumes that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.”)
- In what ways has the world changed since 2001? In what ways has it remained the same?
- How is terrorism defined and who defines it? Why does this matter?
- Elizabeth and Mohamedou talk about how the focus of their conversations has often been on pain. How does a sharing of painful experiences impact self? Other? What commonalities did Elizabeth find with Mohamedou?
- A recurring theme is the notion of finding happiness, peace, and positivity out of, or in spite of, tragedy. How can these experiences inform your own reactions to grief or hardship?
- Mohamedou has become friends with one of his former guards. What lessons can come from this connection? How might the guard – prisoner dynamic evolve?
- Mohamedou talks about how the lowest moment of his experience in U.S. custody was when threats were made against his mother. What impact did the physical and psychological torture techniques employed have?
- How did Mohamedou’s childhood experiences shape his life? What hardships did he experience? What similarities and differences exist between Mohamedou and Elizabeth’s childhoods?
- Mohamedou spoke about not being able to have personal property at Guantánamo. What impact does stripping someone of their fundamental right to property have on an individual?
- Elizabeth and Mohamedou were both asked about forgiveness in the face of injustice. How did the concept of forgiveness help Elizabeth move forward? What is Mohamedou’s perspective on forgiveness?
- What suggestions does Mohamedou have for addressing the injustices, particularly those that are state-sponsored?
- Elizabeth discusses what messaging she has found to resonate with young people who have only known a world where Guantánamo exists. Thinking of your own preferred communication modes, what types of messaging would speak to you? Why?
- Colleen concluded the dialogue by reading the final passage in Mohamedou’s memoir. What impact does getting to truly know someone have on relationships and developing understanding?
Projects for Further Exploration/Calls to Action
- Read Mohamedou’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary” and other first hand accounts to hear different perspectives.
- Watch “The Mauritanian” and compare the cinematic portrayal to what you know from the memoir or the webinar.
- Research the work of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the ACLU, Amnesty International, and other groups that have spoken out against detentions at Guantánamo. What do these organizations seek to do?
- Become an ally or activist. Research the experiences of prisoners in the U.S., including those at Guantánamo. What can you do to demand that the rule of law is followed and that human rights are respected?
- Continue your own journey. Reflect on your own habits, attitudes, and beliefs and take steps to eliminate your own prejudices.
- Watch the short film “My Brother’s Keeper” about the unlikely friendship between Mohamedou O. Slahi and his former prison guard, Steve Wood: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11935548/