On the Hunger Strikes of Guantanamo

Camp 6 of Camp Delta

Admit it. 21 years after Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise went head to head on the big screen, a small part of you still wants to know the truth about what goes on at Gitmo.

From time to time, you come across an article that makes you think, “Yep, something is definitely going on down there,” but you return to your coffee and move on to the next story. Perhaps you should. Even the President of the United States has learned that Guantanamo Bay is largely out of his hands, especially when it comes to their infamous detention facility.

On Thursday, January 22, 2009, Obama signed a largely symbolic executive order, insisting that the detention center at Gitmo be closed within one year. Twelve months after he had received the applause of his party and theoretically fulfilled a major campaign promise, nothing had changed.

Some have pointed out that the problem with fulfilling this pledge so quickly, especially without the support of a representative body, is that the order lacked any formal planning. Obama had simply stated an objective without hashing through the necessary logistics of transferring prisoners elsewhere, putting them before a court, and addressing the backlash of Americans who might, through the fires of partisan media, claim that the new president was soft on terror.

The original order cited legitimate concerns over the questionable capture and imprisonment of individuals who, under the Writ of Habeas Corpus, should, at the very least, have a right to test and prove whether their detainment is lawful in the eyes of a court. Complete abandonment of Habeas Corpus would signify a departure from the dignity of human rights while, on the other hand, a partial abandonment of Habeas Corpus would signify an impending threat to the United States.

This right, granted under Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, has been grossly ignored as part of the national conversation:

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

Arguably, the Bush Administration could have made the case during the first year after 9/11 that Habeas Corpus could and should be temporarily suspended in light of a homeland invasion. Instead, the suspension was made indefinite.  And nowhere did the suspension of Habeas Corpus become so evident as it did in Guantanamo Bay.

Still, prior to Obama taking office, the Supreme Court passed down a 5-4 ruling on June 12, 2008, favoring the Gitmo Prisoners and insisting that they have a constitutional right to petition federal courts regarding their ongoing detainment.

Certainly most Americans would, in theory, get behind the right of a prisoner, held anywhere in the world, to petition someone, somewhere to hear his or her case. Upholding the right to be heard means upholding the notion that all men, being created equal, are at risk of being improperly or illegally held against their will. More to the point, such notions imply that any person imprisoned should be granted the freedom to speak on their own behalf, even if their words are ultimately incriminating.

But as it turns out, the Supreme Court decision was not well received and, according to a 2012 study, federal courts have largely rejected every petition that has been passed up the chain linked fence since the Judicial Branch had their original say in 2008.

This brings us promptly to the Guantanamo Hunger Strike of 2013.

Current estimates indicate that there are 166 prisoners being held in the Guantanamo prison at this time. Twenty-four of them are presently engaged in a hunger strike that has lasted, officially, since February 6, more than 45 days ago.

The strike began in the Camp Six Block of Camp Delta—constructed between 2005 and 2006 to comply with the standards of the American Corrections Association—when six prisoners, angered by constant searches, interrogations, and endless detainment, turned down their first meal.

Within the comfort of our homes, our offices, and our places of leisure, we might read this and think that the prisoners are trying to make a political statement. That may well be true, but in the absence of hope, where there is absolutely no possibility of change, men are dehumanized. Edward Gibbon, who masterfully described the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, once wrote that hope is the great “comfort of our imperfect condition.”

Is the Guantanamo Hunger Strike a political play? Could be. But after 45 days, probably not. More like the attempted suicide of men whose voices have, by no small measure, been silenced by an exhausted collection of politicians and judges who are no longer willing to consider even the remotest possibility of innocence or payment of time served among the accused. Remove hope and you extinguish the presence of humanity from an individual.

Guantanamo Hunger Strikes date back to 2002 when, according to the FBI, at least three prisoners, trying to understand the reasons for their capture, refused to eat for two weeks.

“The mental condition of the detainees is to the point where they are all participating in a hunger strike.”

Attempted suicides have come in many forms at Guantanamo. One man hung himself in his own cell in 2003. Another actually slashed his own throat with a sharpened fingernail in 2007 like something out of The Following.

Of course, a legitimate argument could be made that these were the attempted suicides of men who were committed to Al Qaeda and the absolute loathing of America. But the fact is, we don’t know.

There was, however, a Guantanamo Hunger Strike in 2005 that drew political attention and marked results because it lasted well beyond 45 days and included some 200 detainees. Clive Smith, a human rights lawyer who visited the prisoners, said he interviewed one of them, Binyam Mohammad of London, who was willing to die if the conditions of the prison were not improved.  Mohammed, well studied in his English history, put it this way:

“People will definitely die. Bobby Sands petitioned the British Government to stop the illegitimate internment of Irishmen without trial. He had the courage of his convictions and he starved himself to death. Nobody should believe for one moment that my brothers here have less courage.”

The Case of Bobby Sands was unique in that Sands himself had been tried and convicted of crimes involving his participation in a gun fight with the police of Northern Ireland during the 1970s. He was a controversial member of the IRA who detested the British Government and was arrested more than once for similar activities. Some have said that he was sentenced to 14 years simply because he had ownership and possession of a gun, but in reality, he was punished for his involvement with the crimes that gun had been used to perpetrate.

What made the Sands imprisonment so famous was not his guilt or innocence. Rather, that he knowingly starved himself for 66 days in 1981, ultimately dying after two days in a coma. Sands gave the following rationale for his hunger strike:

“My heart is very sore because I know that I have broken my poor mother’s heart, and my home is struck with unbearable anxiety. But I have considered all the arguments and tried every means to avoid what has become the unavoidable…I am a political prisoner. I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land. I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence, and the right of any Irishman or woman to assert this right in armed revolution. That is why I am incarcerated, naked and tortured.”

For Mohammed to speak of Bobby Sands, criminality came second to the right of petition and the willingness of a prisoner to give up his life for the sake of his convictions.

But that was the Guantanamo Hunger Strike of 2005, just four years after 9/11 and with a strong possibility that most prisoners were still very much in league with their anti-American counterparts.  At least we’d like to believe that was the case. There simply isn’t enough information available to prove or disprove those possibilities.

Fast forward to the Guantanamo Hunger Strike of 2013, eleven years after 9/11 and four years after the Supreme Court favored the right of these prisoners to petition federal judges into hearing their cases; a decade of indefinite exclusion from the inalienable rights of man.

If the existing prisoners were guilty of crimes against the United States and their impending deaths ensure the security of Americans, we will never know. If the existing prisoners were innocent of any pre-internment aggression against the United States, then their impending deaths would justify the immediate restoration of Habeas Corpus for all the detainees at Gitmo. But Americans of red, blue, and purple politics will have to admit, one way or another, that these deaths will, in the end, prove only the merits of our collective ignorance.