Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes: Will Force-Fed Prisoners Push Congress to Close the Prison?


One month ago, they were 37. 37 disgruntled, angry, desperate inmates of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp who banded together to protest the U.S. interrogation facility in the form of a hunger strike. In the 30 days since then, the number of strikers has skyrocketed to 100, 100 of the naval base’s 166 prisoners.

The Guantanamo Bay staff, working under the clear instructions of President Obama, has been doing all it can to keep its nourishment-reluctant inmates alive. Unfortunately, the inmates' vow against eating paired with the military staff's pledge to keep their prisoners alive has spiraled into the ugly art of force-feeding.

And this isn’t like those days of your childhood when the spoon in front of you suddenly became a plane and your mouth the landing dock upon which it had to land. This is a different, far graver, kind of force-feeding.

Taken from his recent report calling for the closure of Guantanamo, former president of the American College of Physicians Dr. Gerald Thomas described the treatment at the Naval Base in Cuba as such:

"You are forced to eat, forced physically to eat, by being strapped into a specially-made chair and having restraints put on your limbs, your arms, your legs, your body, your head so that you cannot move. [You have] a tube inserted into your throat that extends into your stomach and you're trying to resist that with the only muscles that are free in your throat. Pain, discomfort, obviously. But in addition to that, food is then forced in a liquid form into your stomach. You're kept in the chair for at least two hours, usually more than two hours, to prevent you from vomiting and undermining the force-feeding. You can't go to the bathroom during that time. Your dignity is taken away."


So why are the inmates starving themselves? Why put themselves through all this? Well, as we all know, during his campaign for his first term in office, President Obama promised to close the controversial detention camp under his ensuing presidency. Six years later, due to a series of political restrictions, not a single inmate transfer has been made and the base is no closer to ending its detentions. And on top of that, eighty-six prisoners have since been cleared for release, though not a single has left. Only six prisoners are still facing military commissions. Compare that number to the over one hundred prisoners who have taken to the growing hunger strike. It’s a silent protest to hasten the process promised by our politicians.

So now comes the larger, ethical questions of the matter: What is the best way for the United States to respond to these prisoners electing to starve themselves? Should we let them kill themselves, or is force-feeding the right approach?

Both the American Medical Associations and the Constitution Project have labeled the act of force-feeding as a violation to the ethics of the medical profession. They’ve agreed that medical intervention, even life-saving intervention, should always be a conscience patient’s choice to make. So let them die, right? Ethics?

Not quite. Obama and Congress have really created a catch-22 for themselves. They want to keep their prisoners around to try them in the just, habeas corpus, “American” way, and to get as much information from them as they can; but they also don’t want to bring terrorists — even though the U.S. currently considers less than 100 of them dangerous enemy combatants — back onto domestic soil; but they also have instituted an embargo on all transfers to Yemen (where roughly 90 of the Guantanamo prisoners hail from). So, these 166 prisoners are, truly, stuck in limbo.

But maybe, just maybe, this whole starving situation is some what of a good thing for Obama and his administration. Think about it.

The president has told us (and, more directly, Congress) that the prison in Cuba is a waste of the taxpayers’ money and is a poor representation of American foreign policy. Maybe also telling his fellow politicians to let the prisoners suffer in their self-inflicted starvation rather than continuing the ugly process of force-feeding will put an end Congress’ dillydallying and force them to produce of a concrete plan for what to do with the prisoners and the detention camp before they all perish.

I don't want to suggest that the president will or should in any way encourage the prisoners to starve themselves. I'm sure he hopes that they all cooperatively eat. But my thought is solely that to act under the medically professional ethics stated above would also be to push congress towards action. That maybe the Gitmo prisoners are the acting advocates that will really get Obama's desires passed. That even though this may not be the course of action he would ideally elect, it may still be a productive one. After all, hopefully no Congressman wants death on his conscience.