I remember how deeply the 1981 hunger strike by Bobby Sands and the other Irish prisoners in Long Kesh shocked my conscience. Maybe it was because it was the first time I’d ever heard of a hunger strike, but I was riveted. I remember that it was big news, too. Huge. Even though it was against another government.
The current hunger strike at Guantánamo, against our own government, is generating some coverage, to be sure; but if I walked down the main street of Youngstown, Ohio, or Flagstaff, Arizona, and asked 40 people, I wonder whether even 10 would know about it. And then I wonder how many of those 10 would give a crap. The Gitmo situation is Obama’s fault, and Congress’s, and the national security establishment’s. But it’s ours, too. On these matters, we Americans have become a pretty lousy people.
I don’t care what your political views are—I say there is no way on earth that you could read the recent Times op-ed by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel and not feel abject shame. He has been detained for 11 years, three months. In that time, he’s never had a trial. He was never even charged with a crime. If you are an American citizen and that doesn’t scandalize you, horrify you, then you are not really an American in any important meaning of the term.
And that’s before we even get to the graphic stuff in his piece, about what it’s like to have a tube forcibly shoved down your gullet while hunger striking, as 100 of Gitmo’s remaining 166 prisoners now are. Moqbel told his lawyers (the op-ed is a transcription of his oral accounts to them) that there were now more hunger strikers than the staff can deal with, and staff are running around all day and night intubating prisoners (it’s hard work, force-feeding hunger strikers; 21 are being force-fed right now).
It was the alleged mistreatment of detainees’ Qurans that started the strike. That’s a real issue—the searching of Qurans had essentially stopped in 2006, according to David Remes, a lawyer who has 17 clients detained at Gitmo. But the searches were reinstated by the current commander, John Bogdan. “Colonel Bogdan has tried to rule with an iron first, which he thought would produce order,” says Remes. “It’s produced mayhem.”
But the Quran issue to some extent only served as a stand-in for the entire welter of issues at Gitmo, and now detainees’ demands get to the heart of the matter—for the United States to start letting some of these people go home, or at least somewhere. Fully 86 of the 166 have been “cleared”—that is, they no longer pose a threat—but we’re holding them anyway. Remes, by the way, says he and the others lawyers believe that the real number of hunger strikers is closer to 130.
How did this surreality come to be? It really is an inescapable (seemingly) maze of fear-mongering, hysteria, cowardice, don’t-look-at-me finger-pointing, and dread at the prospect of being blamed. You see, there’s this law from 2011 under which the Defense Department could start, under a specific waiver granted by Congress, releasing detainees. But the language of the waiver makes the administration in effect promise Congress that nothing bad will ever be done by any of these people.
This language, says Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network, was the brainchild of a Democratic and a Republican senator—Carl Levin and John McCain—and virtually ensures that no waiver will ever be sought. “The administration and the bureaucracy calculate that the waiver is an enormous political liability and not something they want to take on,” she told me Sunday.
So there you have it. The Republicans in Congress won’t budge because they basically aren’t especially bothered by someone who isn’t a citizen being held for 11 years with no charges against him. And let’s not forget what mendacious demagogues they were on this in 2009, with that lying nonsense about how Obama wanted to release terrorists to your neighborhood and such. The Democrats, meanwhile, probably are bothered, at least most of them, but they’re too afraid to do anything about it. Obama doesn’t want to risk any potential fallout of sending someone back to Yemen on the chance, however slim, that that person will do some future harm. No one budges, and everyone has the splendid isolation of being able to blame someone else.
But these people are only acting within the parameters that public opinion creates, and it’s shameful that after 12 years, we’re still a people who want daddy to protect us by any means necessary. If that requires that we put a blowtorch to the Constitution to hold a few people with unpronounceable names who aren’t even Americans, so what. They’re from those weird countries over there, they probably did something. You can curse Obama and the Democrats for being cowardly, and they are, but they’re probably also right that a pretty large majority of Americans are perfectly if dishonorably content with this state of affairs.
And what happens when the hunger strikers reach what experience tells us is their logical end point? “What happens in Yemen,” asks Hurlburt, “when the first five Yemenis die?” If you think drones are a problem, wait until this unfolds. And to reverse her question, what happens in America when the first five Yemenis die? I used to live in a country where I felt I knew the answer to that question. These days I’m not so sure.