America has fallen into accepting complacency. But the hunger strikers at Guantanamo have reminded us that this cannot go on.
Hundreds of New York City fast food workers walked off the job Thursday, marking what could be the largest strike in the industry’s history. It was a brave and difficult and even desperate choice of hundreds of low wage workers, with no labor protections, making minimum wage, facing debts and uncertainty, making the decision to walk out from their jobs for one day to protest their wages, knowing full well the law gives them no protection; that they could be fired and find themselves the very next day with the same expenses and no income.
These are people who have very little power in our society, and they have decided to empower themselves by using the one tool at their disposal: the power to refuse, to say no, to walk out.
They are not the only ones. There is another strike happening as I speak. It features a group of people with far, far less power than even the minimum wage workers in the fast food industry.
This strike is far away from the cameras, and there are no signs. It’s the strike of the most powerless. A strike of those who have quite literally no recourse under the law, who have no autonomy except their own bodies.
I am speaking of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. The at-minimum 40 men who are using the only power they have—the power to control what goes into their bodies—to make their voices heard. Eleven of them are being robbed of even this and are being force fed through their noses.
And let me be clear, while the Pentagon says there are now 40 men on hunger strike, the lawyers we spoke to on Thursday said that the number in reality is much much higher. The strike appears to be spreading, and lawyers who represent detainees and the few reporters who cover the facility sense we are hurtling towards a breaking point.
Now of the 166 detainees left at Guantanamo over half of them have already been cleared for release, meaning that the government does not have a case against them and does not think they pose a threat to the United States. And yet they languish at the prison at Guantanamo.
They are left to rot thousands of miles away from their families and their home while the United States government tells the world they should be free. And so these men, after a decade of imprisonment have resorted to starving themselves, like they have in 2005 and 2006 and almost every year since.
Yasin Qassem Mohammed Ismail, a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo, told his lawyer David Remes in a letter on March 11:
In general, everything is going toward the worst. I believe I am going to die in this hunger strike and this might be my last letter or today is probably my last day in this world.
Barack Obama recognized Guantanamo as a stain on the national honor, a moral abomination, an insult to our laws and an unsustainable policy in practical terms. He said:
“It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred.”
And he did, to his credit, try to close the facility, only to be met with the most craven of political opposition from Republican—and then fellow Democratic members of Congress.
But faced with that opposition, he and the Democrats—and frankly all of us as citizens—have fallen into accepting complacency.
Four years after Obama signed his ill-fated executive order to close the prison it remains fully open and operational. More so than it was when he took office.
It is after all very easy not to think about 166 men locked up thousands of miles away. But. the status quo that exists in Guantanamo Bay—where we keep people locked up for no reason other than that we don’t know what to do with them—cannot go on. And yet it does.
But while there are genuinely hard questions on Guantanamo, there are some easy ones too.
The dozens of men who have been cleared by the United States government for release should be released immediately, should be paid restitution, and offered legal residence in the United States.
If that sounds radical or outside the boundaries of political feasability, I would say that shoving tubes up the noses of men a few times a day to force them to stay alive in our prisons, even though we readily admit we have to no reason to continue to keep them, is pretty damn radical, too.