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Banned Books of Guantánamo: 'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If I were running an illegal detention center in a distant no man's land where prisoners could be held indefinitely and without trial I wouldn't want detainees to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's masterpiece <i>Crime and Punishment</i> either.

Reza Aslan is an author and creative writing professor at UC Riverside. His most recent book is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

If I were running an illegal detention center in a distant no man's land where prisoners could be held indefinitely and without trial, and where torture and deprivation are common tools of interrogation, I, too, would not want detainees to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

The book follows the slow mental breakdown of an impoverished university student in St. Petersburg named Raskolnikov, after he murders a crooked pawnbroker and her unwitting half-sister. Overcome by guilt for his actions, and spurred by the love of a shy prostitute named Sonya, Raskolnikov eventually confesses to the crime and accepts his punishment. Although imprisoned in Siberia, Dostoyevsky makes it clear that Raskolnikov's redemption comes not from the legal punishment he endures, but rather from his awakened desire to atone for his actions and be forgiven for them by society.   

On the surface this appears to be an appropriate lesson for the fearsome terrorists who are now languishing, seemingly for eternity, in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. The story of a criminal wracked by guilt who surrenders to the authorities in order to atone for his crime is one that I would assume the guards at Gitmo would be happy for detainees to read.

Perhaps the fear of Crime and Punishment has to do with the philosophy that Raskolnikov espouses to justify his crime. Raskolnikov views himself as a "superman," a superior being unbound by the moral limitations of his society. Ordinary people—the masses who "live in obedience and like it"—must obey the laws. But the superman can make his own laws. He may commit whatever crime he wishes in pursuit of his own objective, even if it means killing those who, like the pawnbroker, are of no use to society.

For Raskolnikov, the ideal model of the superman is Napoleon Bonaparte, who achieved supreme power through unfettered violence and immoral acts that, were they to have been conducted by an ordinary person, would be considered criminal. But because Napoleon is a genius—a superman—the laws that govern the rest of humanity do not apply to him. "If it is necessary for one of them, for the fulfillment of his ideas, to inarch over corpses, or wade through blood, then in my opinion he may in all conscience authorize himself to wade through blood," Raskolnikov says to his pursuer, the wily police detective Porfiry Petrovich.

In other words, Napoleon was forgiven his crimes because he won. He was not a criminal but a hero.

Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not only because he is desperate for money, but because he wants to prove to himself that he too is a superman. He wants to demonstrate that he is above the law, above morality. He wants to show that he is special.

I suppose if all you read are the Cliffs Notes to Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's theory about supermen who are above the law and who can commit any crime without consequence may sound eerily like the theory espoused by Jihadists: that there is a cosmic war raging between the forces of Good and Evil, allowing for a chosen few to conduct extreme acts of violence in the name of God.

But if you actually read the book you discover that not only does Raskolnikov's guilt and his spiritual breakdown prove he is not a superman, it also proves that there is in fact no such thing as a superman. Indeed, the book culminates with Raskolnikov's sudden realization that there can be no justification for his actions. It is because of this that he confesses and accepts the punishment for his crime.   

And therein lies the reason why I would ban the detainees at Guantánamo from reading the book. Dostoyevsky's entire point is that only by accepting responsibility for one's actions can freedom and forgiveness be attained. Raskolnikov's punishment is not physical but mental and spiritual. He realizes he will spend some time in prison for his crime and then be released back into the world when his sentence is over. Yet, it is the prison of the mind that he must escape. Only then will his release from the physical prison he inhabits lead to true redemption and atonement.

But there is no redemption in Guantánamo. No atonement. No forgiveness. No prison "term" to be accepted and fulfilled. No hope for redemption and release. No hope at all. The prison of the mind is inescapable when the prison made of walls is arbitrary and eternal.

No wonder, then, that more than a decade after Guantánamo became a by-word for America's national shame, there are those who argue that the prisoners there can never be released because, even if they are innocent, they have been tortured and brutalized to the point that they would surely take vengeance upon us if they were let go. Dostoyevsky could have written an entire novel based on that surreal argument. As a matter of fact, he did. And it is as dangerous a book today as it was when he published it 150 years ago.

In the epilogue of the novel, Raskolnikov, now a prisoner in Siberia, has a dream in which a disease infects the people of the world, making them think they are in sole possession of the truth. Thus infected, they begin to kill each other, until the entire world is on the brink of utter collapse. Whatever else one wants to say about the War on Terror, it seems to have brought Raskolnikov's nightmare closer to reality.

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