How a Man Was Thrown into Gitmo and Tortured for Clicking on My Article
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I like to think that some of the things I write cause discomfort in those readers who deserve to feel it. Ideally, they should squirm, they should flinch, they might even experience fleeting gastrointestinal symptoms. But I have always drawn the line at torture. It may be unpleasant to read some of my writings, especially if they have been assigned by a professor, but it should not result in uncontrollable screaming, genital mutilation or significant blood loss.
With such stringent journalistic ethics in place, I was shocked to read in the February 14
Daily Mail Online
headed "Food writer's online guide to building an H-bomb...the 'evidence' that put this man in Guantánamo." The "food writer" was identified as me, and the story began:
A British 'resident' held at Guantanamo Bay was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a 'joke' website on how to build a nuclear weapon, it was revealed last night.
Binyam Mohamed, a former UK asylum seeker, admitted to having read the 'instructions' after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.
While I am not, and have never been, a "food writer," other details about the "joke" rang true, such as the names of my co-authors, Peter Biskind and physicist Michio Kaku. Rewind to 1979, when Peter and I were working for a now-defunct left-wing magazine named Seven Days . The government had just suppressed the publication of another magazine, The Progressive , for attempting to print an article called "The H-Bomb Secret." I don't remember that article, and the current editor of The Progressive recalls only that it contained a lot of physics and was "Greek to me." Both in solidarity with The Progressive and in defense of free speech, we at Seven Days decided to do a satirical article entitled "How to Make Your Own H-Bomb," offering step-by-step instructions for assembling a bomb using equipment available in one's own home.
The satire was not subtle. After discussing the toxicity of plutonium, we advised that to avoid ingesting it orally, "Never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach." My favorite section dealt with the challenge of enriching uranium hexafluoride:
First transform the gas into a liquid by subjecting it to pressure. You can use a bicycle pump for this. Then make a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes. Slow down gradually, and very gently put the bucket on the floor. The U-235, which is lighter, will have risen to the top, where it can be skimmed off like cream. Repeat this step until you have the required 10 pounds of uranium. (Safety note: Don't put all your enriched uranium hexafluoride in one bucket. Use at least two or three buckets and keep them in separate corners of the room. This will prevent the premature build-up of a critical mass.)
Our H-bomb cover story created a bit of a stir at the time, then vanished into the attics and garages of former Seven Days staffers, only to resurface, at least in part, on the Internet in the early 2000s. Today, you can find it quoted on the blog spot of a University of Dayton undergraduate, along with the flattering comment: "This forum post is priceless. It is one of the best pieces of scientific satire I have ever seen. I can only hope and pray that terrorist groups attempt to construct an atomic bomb using these instructions -- if they survive the attempt, they'll have at least wasted months of effort."