Is it more humane to let the detainees starve to death?
Obviously, in a perfect world, the situation would resolve itself, GTMO would close, and we would all live happily ever after. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We live in a much more complicated world where there isn’t a simple or elegant solution to this issue. I’ve been to GTMO as a Judge Advocate working on the military commissions. I, too, would like it to close. I really would. But in the meantime, how many men do you let starve to death?
All who wish to do so. If they believe it is the only way to end their torment, what right do we have to prevent them? One reader’s answer:
Perhaps some fellow Dishheads can shed some light on what the pains are associated with long-term starvation, but I have to assume that’s not exactly a pretty picture. What all of this does for me is just crystallize the giant clusterfuck that is Gitmo. We have a number of humans who are being indefinitely detained with no end in sight, which in and of itself is horrible. And the choices appear to be for us to inflict further pain by forcing them to eat, or for us to let them inflict pain on themselves, possibly to the point of a slow horrible death.
When you frame it this way, I would lean slightly toward saying that in the current circumstances, force-feeding is the better choice of two bad options.
I have followed this thread with some interest and can’t help but point out: this treatment does not meet the dictionary definition of torture.
Brian Kellett, a paramedic who in “most cases [is] completely against force-feeding,” nevertheless deems the Mos Def video “propaganda”:
I have placed more NG tubes than I can remember and I have never seen a reaction as strong as that shown in the first video. It certainly isn’t very pleasant to have a NG tube inserted as it tickles the back of the throat that makes you want to gag (or swallow), but it is not this apparent torture that is being shown. An NG tube is inserted in hospitals for a number of reasons, sometimes for surgery, sometimes because a patient cannot swallow. In the first video Yasiin Bey [aka Mos Def] isn’t given water to drink during the procedure, but in many of my patient’s I also couldn’t give them anything to drink to ease the passing of the tube as these patients would have no gag reflex and so giving them water could result in them inhaling rather than swallowing the water. Inhaling water can have side effects that include death.
Yasiin Bey is also shown to be resisting, while the person in the [above] video is complying with instructions. Many of the patients that I passed an NG tube into had some form of confusion, either due to a stroke, due to dementia or due to a multitude of other causes . In some cases I would be passing a tube into the stomach of someone against their will because they had tried to commit suicide and were under a Mental Health Section.
Even in these cases I never saw a reaction as strong as that of Yasiin Bey.
A reader has a very different take:
I have a rare condition called Multiple System Atrophy, which involves a number of progressive diseases/conditions. But of all of the painful things I’ve endured, feeding tubes take the prize.
I feel churlish for pointing this out, since I, too, want to see the forcefeeding of Gitmo detainees stopped, but since this undercuts the strength of the argument, it’s worth point out that Mos Def is an actor. Moreover, he’s a very good actor, having been nominated both for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for a powerful performance in this movie. Which means that he (unlike Hitchens) may not have been the best person to do this. I fear there are going to be no shortage of neo-cons who will say he was exaggerating very convincingly (though you could always challenge one of the doubters by telling them to try it for themselves).
Call me cynical, but isn’t it strange that Yasiin is literally begging the people doing the procedure to stop? The whole project is voluntary, right? Why wouldn’t they stop when he first asked them to? I’d wager it’s because they knew that having Mos beg for a bit would better persuade the viewer of the horrors of forced feeding. I don’t mind that so much as a cause marketing idea, except that it presents an inaccurate picture.
Undergoing NTF in and of itself, one time, is not actually such a debilitating or psychologically damaging thing. In fact, it’s pretty commonly done in hospitals and at home, even for children, who presumably have a lower tolerance for pain than a grown adult. I agree that subjecting Guantanamo prisoners to this twice a day, against their will, constitutes torture, but I think it’s patently obvious that Yasiin was doing a bit of acting here. Which is a shame, because it cheapens what is otherwise a correct and important message.
Another speaks from experience:
This past January, I began tube-feeding – or “force feeding” – my son, who is just under two years old.
You be the judge. Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) demonstrates the force-feeding procedure used on Gitmo hunger strikers:
Conor watched the video (I actually found it too painful after a while):
[W]hile I don’t know whether or not forced feeding crosses the line of torture, the exercise reminded me of the late Christopher Hitchens volunteering to be waterboarded.
The Obama Administration is force-feeding numerous Gitmo prisoners twice daily as a response to a hunger strike they launched to protest being held indefinitely without charges or trial.
The standard procedures used include “strapping detainees to a chair, forcing a tube down their throats, feeding them large quantities of liquid nutrients and water, and leaving them in the chair for as long as two hours to keep them from purging the food,” The Washington Post has reported. Detainees say the procedures are abusive, verge on torture, and have “caused them to urinate and defecate on themselves and that the insertion and removal of the feeding tube was painful.”
It’s definitely grotesquely inhumane. Seizing control of a human being’s internal body and organs, painfully forcing instruments inside his sinuses and stomach twice daily to keep him under the total control of the authorities is horrifying enough. But when you consider that, unlike Mos Def, these prisoners, many innocent or falsely charged, have no way to challenge their indefinite detention, and are stuck in an endless purgatory of nothingness, the barbarism is obvious. As is the sadism and “globalized indifference” of the American public and their craven Congress. Steve Chapman wants the force-feedings to stop:
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. …
Kent Sepkowitz describes the procedure, which many Gitmo prisoners have been subjected to:
During my training, I placed countless feeding tubes (and larger hoses to pump stomachs). Without question, it is the most painful procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients. The nose—as anyone knows who ever has received a stinger from an errant baseball—has countless pain fibers. Some patients may scream and gasp as the tube is introduced; the tear ducts well up and overflow; the urge to sneeze or cough or vomit is often uncontrollable. A paper cup of water with a bent straw is placed before the frantic and miserable patient and all present implore him to Sip! Sip! in hopes of facilitating tube passage past the glottis and into the esophagus and stomach.
The procedure is, in a word, barbaric. And that’s when we are trying to be nice.
It’s a grotesque attack on a human being’s dignity. Here is how it was described by Vladimir Bukovsky in a must-read essay on torture when it was done by the Soviets:
“The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man — my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit.”
The method in Gitmo is unlikely to be as severe – but every time I have assumed simple decency from the US government with respect to “enemy combatants,” I have often been wrong. But some forced-feeding is rightly judged to be a form of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The UN Rapporteur on Human Rights issued this statement yesterday:
According to the World Medical Assembly’s Declaration of Malta, in cases involving people on hunger strikes, the duty of medical personnel to act ethically and the principle of respect for individuals’ autonomy, among other principles, must be respected. Under these principles, it is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure. Moreover, hunger strikers should be protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence. Health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike.
You think it isn’t cruel or inhumane? Even in Soviet Russia, the practitioners could break down because doing this to another human being against his or her will is so traumatizing: