Prison Hunger Strikes from Guantánamo Bay to Pelican Bay Show That Our 'Justice' System Is Out of Control
Continued from previous page
It is indeed a devilish way of thinking, and thought has everything to do with it. That largest hunger strike, up till now, in which 131 prisoners participated, ended in 2006 with twice-daily force-feeding through nose tubes, a process that involves excruciating pain, bleeding, and vomiting. Speaking last week, Aamer, again on hunger strike, said: “The administration is getting ever more angry and doing everything they can to break our hunger strike. Honestly, I wish I was dead.”
How is it that whatever Obama does, whatever the extent of his impressive calm, the superior intent to explain, things continue to get worse and we become increasingly acquiescent—and hence complicit. And not just at Guantánamo, by the way, but in the isolation units of our own country, whether in state prisons like Pelican Bay—where prisoners have gone, and plan to go again, on hunger strike—or in federal supermax prisons such as ADX Florence, or, the newest example of impeccable containment in Thomson, Illinois. Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch have laid out the Obama Administration’s 2014 budget for “Prisons and Detention”: “The FY 2014 Budget requests a total of $8.5 billion for federal prisons and detention, a 3.5 percent increase over the FY 2012 appropriated level.”
Extra-judicial imprisonment is Obama’s special brand of justice. On May 21, 2009, President Obama proposed the protracted, long-term incarceration of alleged terrorists. What he called a “legitimate legal framework” or more resolutely “an appropriate legal regime” for preventive detention, though wholly unconstitutional, is indistinct from the worst though least discussed excess of Guantánamo: the use of indefinite isolation as psychological torture. By legitimizing incapacitation without proven crimes or violations of law—without trial or charge—President Obama has rationalized solitary confinement. Preventive detention offshore becomes prolonged detention on the mainland, a legally convenient renaming of perpetual isolation.
At the time of this proposal in 2009, the President made the most of horrific imprisonment, the nightmare death-in-life of absolute isolation, part of what every American should recognize as “fundamental” to our “values.” But, again, mendacity and aversion are softened by rational expression, a call for pragmatism and consensus. He asks us to consider: “Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal supermax prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.” But how, we might ask, did he arrive at this option for resolving the dilemma of the Guantánamo prisoners? He explained that this proposal came only after approaching “difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense.”
Obama’s unique brand of legalism allows abuses like Guantánamo’s hunger strikers—strapped to a chair, bound by the hands, feet, and head—to disappear, to fade away under the lovely veneer of civility and the call for sensibleness. Encased in an affect of pure reason, law under this current government encourages our acceptance of its excesses. At the same time it destroys the conditions under which choices can be made between alternative conceptions of right and wrong or justice and injustice.
No other president has been so busy as Obama in converting civil into penal life. Whether it is his attack on whistleblowers and journalists or the continued disregard of mass incarceration in this country—or universal Big Brother surveillance—the government he heads has subordinated citizens to a new kind of legitimacy where obvious injustice is repackaged, replacing actual wrongdoing with the unlimited possibilities of rationalization. The terms of his language, legal to the core, broaden the scope of what was before narrowly defined as penal and extend its activity to new fields.
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