With 100 detainees on hunger strike, some near organ failure or death, the President and media have renewed talk of closing Guantanamo. This is not the first time detainees have struck to protest their abuse and indefinite detention. Some, like Ahmed Zuhair (detained without charge 2002-2008), spent years on hunger strike. In 2005 officials used force and isolation to break the solidarity of the hunger strikers. Then and now, the reactions of Guantanamo officials have been predictable. What is different today is the resolve of the hungers strikers and the greater number of Americans sadder and wiser about administration spin on who the detainees are, how they are being treated, and what they deserve.
You wouldn’t know from media coverage of the 2005 hunger strike that there was a crisis in Guantanamo. Judging from official comments just a few “bad apples” were causing the trouble, and the Command had everything under humane control. The Department of Defense permitted reporters to photograph and question a nurse standing at a table with “enteral” feeding supplies as she cheerfully discussed the flavor of Ensure that the detainees preferred for their “assisted” feedings. As per protocol, her name was unavailable and her face cropped from the picture, but rest assured. Officially, the treatment of the 2005 hunger strikers was so respectful and accommodating that during Ramadan medical personnel limited “assisted feedings” to the nighttime.
Orwell is back. Two weeks ago, Gitmo officials ordered that detainees leaving their cells must get a genital “pat down,” even when going to the phone to speak with their lawyers. Detainees are refusing to speak with their lawyers to avoid the humiliation, but the new pat down policy is unrelated to the hunger strike, says Captain Robert Durand, a Guantanamo spokesman. “We call it a full frisk pat down. It is done quickly, professionally, just to see of anyone is secreting anything on their body. It does include the buttocks and groin area. But it is not any different than what we submit to at the airport when we’re selected for a secondary pat down screening,” Captain Durand told Al Jazeera English. Once again, Guantanamo officials are displaying awesome levels of linguistic invention, and new protocols are said to have nothing to do with the hunger strike.
Inevitably, less palatable details emerge. Officials trying to stop the growth of the 2005 hunger strike began to isolate the detainees to break their solidarity. They also resorted to a new and frightening way to force-feed. A 5-point restraint chair was wheeled into the cellblock that detainees soon named the “torture” chair. On instruction of the medical staff, a riot squad in full battle gear forcefully extracted the resisting hunger striker and dragged him to the chair. Medical staff then inserted the tube down the nose of the detainee who could be suffering an infection from previous applications that made the procedure even more painful than it normally was. (See video.)
The World Medical Association maintains that health care personnel must not force-feed sentient adults against their will. The American Medical Association recently decried the force-feeding at Guantanamo. A spokesperson for the GTMO medical staff suggested that the AMA’s condemnation of the force-feeding was politically motivated. The debate is on. Are army health personnel – including 40 nurses added for the hunger strike — valiantly fighting to save lives by force-feeding? Or are they violating their professional ethics and denying sentient adults the right to protest and refuse a medical intervention? This debate could and, probably will, reach a stalemate in the press or be a win for the army doctors. Meanwhile, the media is not covering force-feeding GTMO-style, which the army doctors cannot defend.
Force-feeding done in the most humane manner is painful and disturbing. Force feeding GTMO-style is so brutal and dangerous that lawyers for Ahmed Zuhair were successful at getting a federal judge to require authorities to force-feed him as carefully as possible. Mr. Zuhair was willing to endure force-feeding as the only way he could protest his unlawful arrest and detention, but he felt he had a right to a humane method. That meant no leaving the tube in for days at a time, no riot squads jumping on detainees in cramped cells before pulling them out, and no torture chair.
Force-feeding GTMO-style is back. (According to reliable accounts it never left, and Mr. Zuhair’s legal victory for a more humane force-feeding applied only to him.) The national discourse on torture is fatally prone to fatuous semantic debates that help stall action for years. We surely don’t need another one as men die in Guantanamo. Force-feeding GTMO-style is not an “enhanced” way to save lives. It is torture plain and simple, and it imperils the health of detainees. It is also not the only evidence that detainees in US-controlled prisons continue to be tortured, particularly in Afghanistan (see OSI 2012 Report and New York Times). However, that brutal way Guantanamo hunger strikers are being force-fed is one of the critical reasons why President Obama’s recent statement at the National Defense University – “We unequivocally banned torture.” — is false.
Torture isn’t working. The resolve and solidarity of the strikers is so great that 30 are enduring force-feeding GTMO-style. Will President Obama listen to the thousands of petitions and pleas to close Guantanamo immediately? Does the President care that 86 of the 166 detainees were cleared for release years ago. The British care enough about Shaker Aamer, a British resident approved for release, that they debated Aamer’s case in Parliament last week and are appealing to President Obama to release him now before he dies in Guantanamo. A long time hunger striker and spokesman for the detainees, Shaker Aamer was quoted by his lawyer in a report in the Guardian:
“I might die this time. I cannot give you numbers and names, but people are dying here. I can’t read. I am dizzy and I fall down all the time. I do not call (the guards), as it is humiliating. When they call Code Yellow (for when a prisoner collapses), they step on your fingers, your hands, they scratch you, even then you are living in fear when they say they are treating you.”
Recently, according to the Guardian, 13 Guantanamo hunger strikers, including Shaker Aamer, wrote their military doctors in an open letter and requested independent, non-military medical care. The detainees wrote, “If you truly had my best medical interests at heart, you could have talked to me like a human being about my choices, instead of treating me in a way that feels like I am being punished for something.”
Martha Davis is a clinical psychologist who completed five years of research on medical complicity in detainee torture and directed Doctors of the Dark Side.