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The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

Recently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s global editor, wrote a piece doubting the effectiveness of the hunger strike being led by Guantanamo detainees since February 7. The strike, begun in protest against the prisoners’ Korans being rifled, has taken on a much larger significance: It is a protest against the continual incarceration and brutalization of the prisoners, some of whom have been there, without being charged, since the opening of prison 11 years ago. The actual number of strikers varies, depending upon who is reporting. According to a military spokesman, there are 39 strikers, with 11 being force-fed nutritional supplements through their noses. The lawyer for Shaker Amer, one of the detainees participating in the hunger strike since it began, reports that there are 130 strikers.

Khazan’s main argument is that hunger strikes are most effective when conducted by a sympathetic group. It is, in several ways, a bizarre conclusion to draw. What does it mean to say that the GTMO detainees are an unsympathetic group? Unsympathetic to whom? To that crowd for whom unilateral Executive declarations of guilt—without public charges, evidence, or trial–are to be received uncritically, much like religious faith? Or perhaps to reporters like Robert Johnson who, as Glenn Greenwald reports, clearly believes Guantanamo is a vacation paradise with first class food. Clearly, that’s not the group to whom the detainees are appealing. After all, if that were true, they wouldn’t be atrophying in frigid cells, suffering kidney and urinary tract infections from nonpotable water, worrying about whether the next beating they received from a 300 lb guard was going to paralyze them for life, or whether they would ever be released.

On the other hand, a group of people who has been detained for 11 years without being charged–with anything–is a remarkably sympathetic group for those of us who are committed to the rule of law, who object to violations of procedure, and the imperious expansion of state authority. Judging from the length of this strike, as Amy Davidson states, something has gone very wrong at Guantanamo. But something went wrong 11 years ago, and has yet to be rectified—namely that ANY populace ANYWHERE would tolerate men being imprisoned without trials, evidence, charges for any sustained period time.

Khazan is correct that the GTMO detainees will receive no sympathy from the current Presidential Administration. That is precisely the motivation to strike publicly. Since when have hunger strikers ever had the sympathy of the institutions or regimes against whom they are striking? Neither suffragettes nor the students in the Tiananmen protests against Chinese state authorities, nor anti-colonial leaders such as M.K. Gandhi ever had a sympathetic ear from the authorities to whom they were appealing.

Yet the use of hunger strikes by the above groups is fundamentally different from hunger strikes conducted by prisoners. Even though groups such as Black prisoners in Soledad State Prison in 1970 or those in Walpole State Prison in 1980 were hardly ‘sympathetic,’ their acts were publicly compelling. I would suggest that it is because prisoners are among the most reviled of populations that a hunger strike by them is such a compelling act.

It is not hard be exposed to the sheer loathing of a group who has been been caged: the image—real or imagined—of a person caged, treated like a wild animal, is an effective way to pre-empt sympathy. For many, it raises questions about the moral and intellectual status of the prisoner. They must be guilty or behaviorally unpredictable, or savage, or cruel, or ready to hurt, maim, or rape you. These are the (intended) associations of imprisoning someone—regardless of whether the punishment was meted out procedurally. The imprisoned are reduced to terrifying, dangerous creatures. We saw this in the pictures of Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, as well as in the descriptions of prisoners that came from top officials. As Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Guantanamo prison in 2004, was reported to have said of the detainees:

… [T]hey are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.

The commanding element of a hunger strike as a form of protest is precisely that it doesn’t harm others physically. That absence of harm to others is part of the hunger strike’s command to pay attention: it is the antithesis of how a vilified population would be predicted to act in protest or outrage. Instead, the hunger strike is an act of harm to oneself. It involves deprivation to oneself—of nourishment. It involves a re-orientation of oneself: towards death.

There is the another arresting element of a hunger strike conducted by a prisoner: it is plainly the last resort of a being who has nothing else with which to bargain: no other tool, no other leverage, no other allies who can advocate effectively or successfully for those who are striking. The prisoner who engages in an hunger strike uses the only means left at his disposal–his life–which ostensibly is the only leverage that he can have control over. In that imagined spectacle—communicated only through lawyers and journalists–the hunger strike reintroduces us to the humanity of a person who is—at least physically—hurting no one else but himself. It brings up associations of martyrdom, suffering, moral decisions—uniquely human associations. A third and most powerful element of the hunger strike is the insistence that this one aspect of someone’s existence—one’s humanity, one’s ‘aliveness’—will not be ceded to any other authority.

That might be why, historically, there have continually been moral prohibitions against suicide, whether through religious teachings or state policies: ending one’s life is the one thing that—in ordinary circumstances–others’ authority cannot physically compel you to refrain from. This explains why, in prisons, the relevant authorities make every effort to deny a person the ultimate decision that is available to free people—the decision to live or die.

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

A hunger strike provides detainees with a way to reassert some measure of control over their own lives. By refusing to eat, they force the world to recognize their existence and humanity and to confront the reality of their continued imprisonment. Legal rulings can be rationalized or ignored in a way that a dying prisoner cannot.

But in fact, even that control is wrested away: Notice that I didn’t refer to one’s “aliveness” as the only leverage which one does have control over. It used to be that the purpose of the state—as understood through Hobbesian or Lockean social contract theory—was to monopolize the power to kill: In return for ceding the right to kill in self-defense, you would be guaranteed protection by the state. Part of that protection included managing and controlling the freedom of others who were a danger to you–those who broke the law—hence, arrests, charges, trials. But alongside the discarding of procedure, the state is increasingly trying to monopolize the control of one’s life (aliveness), that is, to seize the only remaining leverage that a prisoner might have—the ability to control his aliveness.

In the current moment, as the Guantanamo prisoners strike, the state is trying to misappropriate this final degree of leverage from the Guantanamo prisoners—even though they may not—yet—be successful. That is increasingly the definition of imprisonment: to have not merely your physical and political freedom wrenched away, but to have your freedom to decide whether to live–or die—eliminated. We see the elimination of the control over one’s life in supermax prisons, solitary confinement, psychiatric wards. ‘By control over one’s life,’ I don’t mean one’s ability to move or make quotidian decisions—about food, destination, associations, prayer, or speech—although those too—but over one’s actual alive-ness, for lack of a better distinguishing term.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gosztola reported on some of the abuses of Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom have been authorized for release under the Obama Administration. His report came from Clive Smith, an attorney for Shaker Amer. Smith filed a report to an American court that detailed his conversation with his client, a British citizen, by phone. Amer has been detained without charges since the prison’s opening 11 years ago–but cleared for release twice during that time. He is a liaison between guards and prisoners, and has been an advocate for the other prisoners. Amer charges that he and other prisoners are beaten by the guards, subjected to forced cell extractions, deprived of sleep—among other forms of torture–and run the risk of having their backs broken, limbs broken. As well, they must endure the impositions of medical professionals who are trying to disrupt the hunger strike. It is a form of torture: the forced feeding through tubes that are painfully inserted through prisoners’ noses; the refusal to listen.

“Good! They deserve it,” some will say—even though these prisoners haven’t been charged or tried or have ever had any evidence shown of their guilt. And that is one of the main reasons that the news about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo are gaining in momentum. As of now, the US government brazenly refuses to listen to or release even the half (86) of those detainees whose innocence has been—at least tacitly–confirmed through their clearance for release. But the increasing attention might force it to change its position: There are reports of protests by activists in Sana’a and Kuwait City agitating for the release of the men who have been subject to unimaginable tortures for the last 11 years—and are now facing death.

The (imagined) spectacle, the panic of the military guards, and the forced feeding of 11 detainees, should make us all wonder about the casual acceptance of the dehumanization of these prisoners. This dehumanization began with their initial capture and continues with their uncharged, indefinite, infinite detention, and coming to a head now: with their continued torture, beatings, and maltreatment—all for crimes that the Executive Branch assumes but has no evidence to support. But even more, it should impel us to forcefully reject the horrific policies conducted by this administration: by protest, by legal means, by public vocal outrage.