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Indefinite Enemies and the Inhumanity of Our 'War on Terror'

A detainee is being transported at the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention facility. (File photo)You’re strapped to a metal table, unable to move. They stick a two-foot plastic tube up your nose, then down the back of your throat into your stomach. They squirt in the liquid protein. You gag, bleed, vomit. It’s unbearably painful.

The practice of involuntary force-feeding is condemned by most medical organizations, including the AMA. It’s banned by most governments. It’s torture.

When I read about the process by which authorities are breaking the hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay detention center — a process that’s also used regularly in U.S. federal prisons, by the way — I was struck by the utter efficiency of it. The “food” is transmitted directly from bureaucracy to digestive system, bypassing the consciousness of the individual hunger striker. The human being inhabiting this body is completely irrelevant; he only dies when we say so.

Could anything be plainer? The ruling consensus of the United States is desperate for an enemy, any enemy. There is not the least bit of self-reflection involved.

Just think about how powerful we are. Just think about how secure we are.

In the overall context of the war on terror and the harm it has unleashed on the world, the Guantanamo hunger strike, involving 100 of the 166 detainees still being held at the facility — about two dozen of whom are now being force-fed — is a fairly small matter, perhaps. But the symbolic significance of it is beyond description, not only because of the hatred it foments against the United States and the combatants it recruits, but also because of the obvious common decency and common sense it flaunts.

Could anything be plainer? The ruling consensus of the United States is desperate for an enemy, any enemy. There is not the least bit of self-reflection involved.

“There’s no reason to bring these terrorists into the United States. No reason to increase the threat level here,” House Minority Leader John Boehner proclaimed in response to one of President Obama’s tepid attempts to close Gitmo, several years ago. The words ooze cringing contempt for these caged human beings — so many of whom, it turns out, had no involvement with terrorist activity whatsoever. They were turned in for bounty money, arrested out of mistaken identity. No matter. These broken men, caught in the hell of indefinite detention, are America’s enemies and therefore dangerous beyond comprehension, at least in the minds of those who preside over the security state.

People “create enemies in order to maintain a stable, coherent, clear view of the world,” Nathan A. Heflick wrote in a 2011 Psychology Today article. “This is because they can attribute the negatives of the world (which are inevitable) to these enemies. . . . Having enemies even appears to make people feel, ironically, safer.”

And large institutions, as far as I can tell, have the self-awareness of immature children. Tom Engelhardt, for instance, in a recent essay for TomDispatch, ponders the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the sudden end to the Cold War, which left the world with a single, dominant superpower: “And here was the curious thing after centuries of arms races,” he writes. “When there was no one left to race, the U.S. continued an arms race of one.”

And trillions of dollars later, it’s still going on. We can destroy the world a hundred times over but, as Engelhardt writes, we can’t “win a war against minimally armed guerillas.”

We can, however, raid their homes, take out their leaders with drone strikes, rattle our symbolic sabers at defiant heads of state and maintain a gulag of bad, bad people, who have virtually zero rights. The Guantanamo facility gouges the national treasury for about a million dollars per detainee annually, and Americans may have more to fear, in the real world, from 5-year-olds with guns than they do from alleged terrorists, but that’s not
the point. We need enemies. Homeland Security is psychological.

Thus the guilt or innocence of the Gitmo prisoners and all our other detainees is irrelevant. It doesn’t even matter that most Americans would probably prefer to see the facility closed, and by large margins elected a president who once promised to do so. In the minds of the ruling consensus and a compliant media, terrorists are not only “out there,” planning the overthrow of our way of life just as the Soviet generals once did, but they are also “in here,” caged, contained, their evil under our absolute control. They can’t even starve themselves to death as a final act of protest against their detention. They have no right to act as human beings, because we have proclaimed them terrorists.

In a world of “what goes around comes around,” we are, of course, not secure at all — not when we abandon our highest values and dehumanize a vast portion of the world. Most of us get this, at least as individuals. But how do we make a nation grow up, especially when its principle shareholders have so much money invested in its continuing immaturity?

The best I can do is echo James Carroll, who wrote this week in the Boston Globe that “the way to respond to the threat of their dying from self-imposed starvation is not to torture them with feeding tubes forced into their nostrils, but to address the legitimacy of their demands.”

In other words, look at their humanity. Once we do, we’ll never be the same.