Friday, December 30, 2005

Safe, humane care

Yesterday I had not read the Pentagon press release authored by Col. Martin (pdf) announcing that there are 46 new hunger-strikers at Gulag Guantanamo. A little deconstruction is in order. The document uses the words fast or voluntary fast five times, compared to just two for hunger strike and its cognates (forcible feeding is referred to as “enteral feeding”). It attempts to de-individuate the hunger strikers, who are always referred to in plural forms (detainees, enemy combatants, fasters) and avoids giving us information that would allow us to imagine the experiences of individual hunger strikers. For example, we are told that there are now 84 hunger strikes and that “The number of detainees engaged in the current fast, which began on August 8, 2005, routinely fluctuates”, but not how long individuals have hunger struck for (if we came away with the impression that they hand it off in relays every five days, that would be just fine with the Pentagon), nor how long individuals have been forcibly fed.

It is a common technique of governments faced with hunger strikers to suggest that they are the weak-minded puppets of unscrupulous leaders. In 1981 Thatcher insisted that hunger-striking IRA prisoners “are of more use to [IRA leaders] dead than alive” and had therefore been “persuaded, coerced or ordered to starve themselves to death”. Similar claims were made about Irish hunger strikers in the 1920s. In 1914 the British home secretary claimed that hunger-striking suffragettes were paid by rich suffragettes to go to prison, hunger strike and be forcibly fed. So we are now told that “This technique (hunger striking) is consistent with al-Qaida training and reflects detainee attempts to elicit media attention and bring pressure on the United States Government to release them.” The phrase “consistent with” implies a causal relationship, suggesting that the prisoners are Al Qaeda members, that they have received some sort of training in not eating, and that they are under orders, without actually having to prove any of that.

We are told that the number of hunger strikers increases whenever lawyers are coming to Gitmo, and on September 11 (that the recent increase came on Christmas is not mentioned), suggesting that the hunger strike is a response to outside factors and clever PR strategies, not to anything that might be happening to them in Guantanamo. Indeed, any actual demands made by the hunger strikers are never mentioned, suppressed along with their individual voices and indeed their names.

But lest you think that all seems a little “consistent with” Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, whatever, we are informed that Gitmo, in accordance with its “mission of providing safe, humane care, ensuring the custody of all detainees, and intelligence gathering in support of the global war on terror,” affords the hunger strikers “enemy combatants on voluntary fasts” with monitoring by medical professionals (professionals means that they’re paid, but these medical professionals are paid by the US military, so I don’t know how reassuring that is), receiving “the appropriate amount of daily nutrition and hydration,” and, of course, counseling about the health risks of hunger-striking. Sounds very humane, almost touchy-feely, you’d never know tubes are being shoved down people’s noses several times a day.

I thought about writing to Col. Martin ( and asking him to clarify some of his statement (what does it mean to be “consistent with Al Qaeda training, what is the longest someone has been fasting, what is the longest someone has been forcibly fed, what demands have they issued, etc), but I didn’t think there was much likelihood of a response to an anonymous blogger, except perhaps an invitation for an extended tour of the facilities...

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