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Prison Hunger Strikes from Guantánamo Bay to Pelican Bay Show That Our 'Justice' System Is Out of Control

Obama’s unique brand of legalism allows abuses like Gitmo’s hunger strikers to fade away under the lovely veneer of civility and the call for sensibleness.
 
 
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For the prisoners of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective who will resume their hunger strike on July 8, 2013

The unholy spectacle of Guantánamo Bay again demands our attention. The military has now admitted that 104 of the remaining 166 prisoners there are on hunger strike. Forty-four are being force-fed. No matter that doctors are sworn to the maintenance of personal and medical ethics. They are determined to carry out what officials there have called “intensified assisted feeding” no matter the pain or indignity. Our Defense Department justifies this practice by assuring us that its aim is “to support the preservation of life by appropriate clinical means, in a humane manner.”

As we all know and have known since 2002, most of the men imprisoned at Guantánamo are not terrorists nor have they committed any crime under our laws. Bereft of rights and held in increasingly harsh conditions, those who protest by starving themselves are forced to live daily under brutal physical assault—but of the most clinically efficient kind. Innocence, as Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, forces the “rightless to endure as expendable objects.” It must be so, for “it seems easier to deprive a completely innocent person of legality than someone who has committed an offense.” Such a person is a lost entity, what she calls “a human being in general.”  

And this generalizable type is something like a ghost, easily believed not to exist, a phantasm we would do well to disregard. But the spectral anomaly can best be understood, as Arendt knows, by putting aside the human. Instead, she gives flesh to the unreal by considering animality. To be anonymous, to be the person whose name no longer matters, is not to be a lesser kind of human but rather “a stray dog who is just a dog in general.” 

Her strong distrust of humanitarian tactics, what humans promise to those from whom they have already removed recognition, leads her to expose the ruses of beneficence. She questions the meaning of care when it hobbles and destroys, and most of all when it masks destruction. Critical of the “Rights of Man” and “the uncertain sentiments of professional idealists,” she declares: “The groups they formed, the declarations they issued showed an uncanny similarity in language and composition to that of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.”

 

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President Obama has publicly commented on this latest hunger strike.  On April 26, he said, “I don’t want these individuals to die.”  In a May 23 speech on terrorism, he admonished, “Look at our current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are . . . on a hunger strike . . . Is this who we are? . . . Is that the America we want to leave our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”

Obama’s words are scarier than Bush’s assurance way back in 2007 that “This government does not torture people.” Scarier because they are smarter.  In his confrontation with the unseemliness of such suffering, Obama has engaged, on the one hand, in spurious generality, operating under excessive legalism, and, on the other, in empty repetition of the wish to close Guantánamo.

Yet the disciplinary and penal machinery of this country seems ever more entrenched, both here and abroad.  How does this happen? Are we lulled into inaction by Obama’s impressive displays of rationality and good judgment? Shaker Aamer, a legal resident of the United Kingdom, but until now for all practical purposes abandoned by the British government, went on hunger strike in 2005. He wrote in his diary: “I swear I have never seen such a devilish way of thinking as they seem to have.” 

 
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