Is Guantánamo falling? The Navy sent reinforcements to the prison there on Monday—forty medics, added to the cohort guarding a hundred and sixty-six prisoners, watching them in their cells, and, increasingly, pulling them into rooms where they are strapped to chairs and have rubber tubes stuck into their noses and snaked down to their stomachs, then pumping in a can’s worth of a liquid nutritional supplement. That is what our sailors are assigned to do now. Two weeks ago, according to press reports, guards in riot gear were sent into what had been a cell block for compliant prisoners—a raid on our own jail—to transfer more than sixty of them into single-cell lockdown. It took five hours. The guards ended up firing what the military called “less-than-lethal rounds”—rubber bullets and pellets—while the prisoners threw “improvised weapons” at them. But mostly the prisoners have been starving themselves.
A hundred prisoners are taking part in the hunger strike at Guantánamo now—a hundred angry men, or ones who are in a state of despair. There may be more, since that is the military’s count, and the lawyers for the prisoners have been saying for some time that the number is higher. There are not, it should be said, a hundred prisoners at Guantánamo who even the United States government considers dangerous enemy combatants; that means it’s a mathematical necessity that there are hunger-strikers who shouldn’t be there, either. Eighty-six prisoners have been cleared for release, one way or the other, many of them years ago now, but have not been released. (For many, the problem is that they are from Yemen.) That leaves just eighty. They are roughly divided between those the Administration says it might bestir itself to bring a case against someday, and those it acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against, but finds somehow unsettling, and so is locking up anyway. There are only six prisoners who are now facing military commissions. A month ago, there were only thirty-one hunger strikers by the military’s count, or five times as many as those being tried. Now the ratio is more than sixteen to one.
One doesn’t need to do the math to know that some of the prisoners trying to kill themselves are not enemy combatants, or suspected terrorists, or militants, or any of the phrases we turn to when we are scared and give up on courts. The military hasn’t released the names of all the hunger-striking prisoners, but, as Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, whose coverage of Guantánamo at every stage has been invaluable, notes, it does tell their lawyers when it decides they are weak enough to put on a list for force-feeding. There are twenty-one in that category now. (There are five who are hospitalized—the top level in the hunger-strike hierarchy. The Herald has a timeline showing the growth of the strike.) Rosenberg learned the names of eight, four of whom—Jihad Diyab, a forty-one-year-old Syrian; Mohammed al-Hamiri, a Yemeni in his thirties; and Nabil Hadjarab, thirty-three, and Ahmed Bel Bacha, forty-four, both Algerians—had been cleared for release. The others hadn’t been charged with any crime.
“Is it any surprise, really, that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?” a reporter asked during a White House press conference on Tuesday. President Obama was aware: “It is not a surprise to me that we’ve got problems in Guantánamo,” he said, and then talked about how he said so back in 2007, and how that was part of his campaign, and how Congressional Republicans had made things very hard. They have; but he, for a couple of years now, has made it easy for them to do so. He said he knew that it wasn’t “sustainable.”
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The force-feeding, which one of the prisoners recounted, through his lawyer, in an Op-Ed in the Times, is not a gentle process. Having a tube jammed into your nose is just what it sounds like. So is jamming a tube down someone’s nose: as Charlie Savage of the Times reported, the President of the American Medical Association has written to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about “allegations of ongoing forced feeding of detainees in U.S. custody, possibly with participation by physicians,” which “violates core ethical values of the medical profession. Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.”
Do we see the prisoners as “competent patients”? Do we even see them as people who may have the imagination to think about what it means to be in a jail on an island forever, without ever going to trial? Is that a life we can picture? There are undoubtedly terrorists at Guantánamo—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is there. But he’s one of the six who’s actually getting a military-commission hearing. At Guantánamo, it seems, the less you have done, the more trapped you are.
What has kept Guantánamo intact until now, and will the hunger strikers bring it down? They have already broken through some complacency. Slate published a memoir by a prisoner called Mohamedou Ould Slahi; we’ve learned more of their names and their stories. But, any day, some prisoners may die, and we’ll have to explain why it took longer for us to make sense of why we were holding them than it did for them to give up on their lives, and starve themselves.
“Well, I don’t—I don’t want these individuals to die,” President Obama said at the Tuesday press conference. He might, or should, have been talking to himself. “Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this?”