What happens when you run strap a prisoner down and run a tube through his nose to feed him? What if it’s twice a day? What if it’s one hundred people every day?
This is what’s happening at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
It’s hard to make the argument that the internment of suspected “enemy combatants” in a prison at Guantanamo Bay is a good thing. It’s expensive, difficult, bad press, and violates basic conventions of the rules of war–and, of course, US law. Candidate Barack Obama said all this in 2008, promising to close the prison camp within his first year in the Oval Office.
It was only one of the issues that encountered difficult resistance from Capitol Hill, and it’s one that he didn’t fight–at least not much. Four years later, Gitmo still open, with all the deficits he identified before becoming president, the issue of an off-shore prison camp barely registered in the campaign. After all, one of the attractions of interning prisoners in Cuba is their relative lack of visibility back in the US.
In America some activists keep trying to put Guantanamo back on the political agenda, organizing protests, staging hunger strikes, and generally doing anything they can to get attention. Successes have been fleeting, and the issue has often fallen to the back of the agendas of even most peace groups.
The prisoners themselves have created the latest blip in a history of neglect that stretches more than a decade. When a new rotation of guards allegedly mistreated Korans (I’m sure there’s more to this), the prisoners staged a new round of hunger strikes.
The hunger strike is inherently coercive, and it depends upon eliciting a reaction from others who recognize the humanity of the striker. These strikes began in February, and by most reports, now include most of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo. The United States has been force-feeding the strikers–with tubes through their noses. It’s awful, and it’s hardly good press for the prison or, more generally, the US and its humanitarian goals. Still, it’s preferable to a series of deaths.
President Obama said as much when he announced that he would re-engage the issue of closing the prison camp. But this was days ago, and he’s been having a hard time with Congress on other issues that most of the public cares far more about, like immigration, guns, and jobs.
Activists would be wise in not expecting follow through from President Obama without significantly more pressure. Some groups are trying, again. Witness against Torture is promoting sympathy hunger strikes. Code Pink is doing the same. Twenty-four human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have signed an open letter calling for the prison to be shut down. (This too has happened before). Organized groups are also trying to stage demonstrations to put the issue higher on the national (and Obama’s) agenda. (Here’s International Answer, which is organizing for May 18th.)
The point: the mass hunger strike gives activists and politicians the opportunity to raise the issue again. Making change, however, requires a sustained commitment from those outside the prison’s walls.