Though they do not show any of these frantic scenes, recently released military photos offer a window onto how Guantanamo has been dealing with the unprecedented protest: A “feeding chair” where detainees are force-fed sits next to a tray of feeding tubes and a bottle of butter pecan Ensure; guards deliver meals through “bean holes” in detainees’ cells, only to throw away the uneaten food; hospital beds behind chain-link fences with rings for shackles beside them. Other images in the series, taken in early April by Sgt. Brian Godette of the Army 138th Public Affairs Detachment, depict scenes from Camps V and VI, where most prisoners are held: a sign asking soldiers to respect praying detainees, a stuffed recliner in the “media room” that looks almost normal until you notice the ankle restraints.
A professor from the Naval Academy Anne-Marie Drew visited and penned her reflections in the Jesuit magazine, America. What struck her most was the epistemic closure of the guards there:
The staff is not sadistic. They are not Nurse Ratched. Rather they fiercely believe in the American ideals of justice and fairness and decent treatment of those in our custody. They want to change the public view of the camps, a view the staff believes is distorted.
Nowhere was this belief more apparent than outside the medical bay when a medical staffer explained force-feedings. With professional calm and compassion, she explained that when we force-feed the detainees, we are taking care of them. We cannot let them starve. The tacit subtext was clear: we are, after all, the United States of America, founded on a Judeo-Christian culture. Inmates are not being mistreated during the procedure, for we are not a country that mistreats others.
She gets to the core of the problem in America, as the country still refuses to look what it is doing and has done clearly in the eye:
Because we think of ourselves as benevolent, as Christian, we cannot conceive of ourselves as cruel. As individuals, we make up stories we can live with. As a nation, we do the same. Thus, we try to convince ourselves that force-feeding reflects benevolence and our role as caretakers. We think of force-feeding as one more safeguard for the detainees… But force-feeding is not such a safeguard. It is a violation of a fundamental human dignity, a dignity these detainees do not abdicate when we incarcerate them.
It’s the same mindset that believes that when Americans torture prisoners, it somehow isn’t torture. Because we have internalized our moral superiority – indeed all but turned it into a national religion – we can do no wrong. What would be torture if authorized by Khamenei is somehow not torture if authorized by Cheney. As Rudy Giuliani – perhaps the most unreflective of all American exceptionalists – put it, waterboarding isn’t always torture, even though it has been designated such by every legal ruling ever made on it. Why? Because
It depends on who does it.
As a Catholic, Giuliani should know that it doesn’t. Evil knows no geographic boundaries. And Americans are not somehow super-humans. So where are the bishops? Michael Shaw reflects on the photos:
Although photos from Gitmo have typically excluded the prisoners themselves, not seeing them and knowing they are wasting away makes their absence here that much more palpable. …
Scenes of olives being delivered that will never be eaten, or full Styrofoam containers getting chucked in the trash, or bottles of Ensure on patient trays next to surgical tubes (to make sure you don’t die on us while the world is watching) can’t help but prompt us to see the prisoners in our own minds (or even imagine we’re getting the treatment).
While the government and the military pretend these photos maintain an adequate level of abstraction, however, to me they do the opposite. In waging a war of wills at the most primitive level, these photos, if highly institutional, somehow take me back to Abu Ghraib. Torturing a man for information, or out of sadism or to keep him alive, is still torture. And as for breaking the will, well, martyrdom is martyrdom, whether it’s by jetliner or by leaving us with rotting containers full of bananas.
My take on the morality of force-feeding here.
(Photos by Sgt. Brian Godette, Army 138th Public Affairs Detachment)