July 01, 2006

The Horrors of Our Time, III: Monsters in Our Midst -- "Dying Is Not Permitted"

I will have much more to say about this, and about the unfathomable monstrousness it represents, in the final part of this series. The earlier parts are: Perfecting Denial -- and Blaming the Victim, Even After Death, and The Complacent, Criminally Complicit American Public. I realize people often do not follow links; I hope you will make an exception in this instance.

For the moment, I will simply say that if the procedures described below are not torture, that word no longer has any meaning. (See my series On Torture for much more on all these issues.) But as I've had occasion to observe recently, the descent into barbarity requires not only the destruction of the human spirit and body, but the destruction of language itself. We operate on the assumption that if we render ourselves unable to describe a phenomenon accurately, then it cannot be happening. In even minimally civilized times, it would not be necessary to state the following -- but the barbarism that now envelops us compels the explicit statement: this belief, worthy of the most piteous superstitious people of primitive folk lore, is of little comfort to the dying person, as the last of his life ebbs away.

Read the entire article. Here are some excerpts:
The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, won a major victory this week when the Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration's planned military tribunals. But for many prisoners at the detention facility, the protests haven't stopped. Hunger strikes persist, in what Guantanamo commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris, Jr. has called "asymmetric warfare" — a means to attract attention to their increasingly controversial detention. As a result, the camp's administrators have sought to keep prisoners alive at all cost — because a prisoner's death (as the U.S. found out three weeks ago, when three Gitmo inmates committed suicide) can be a major embarrassment for the U.S. and add fuel to widespread demands for the facility to be shut down.

Civil-liberties advocates point out that Guantanamo's 460 inmates have few other means to make their voices heard, given that most have been detained for more than four years without even being charged with a crime. Indeed, though the U.S. has condemned the hunger strikers at Gitmo, just last year the White House hailed a hunger-striking Iranian dissident for showing "that he is willing to die for his right to express his opinion."

At Gitmo, however, dead prisoners are something the U.S. military wishes devoutly to avoid. So force-feeding has been standard policy at the camp ever since hunger strikes began in early 2002. The facility's top physicians have also told TIME that prisoners who resist are subjected to especially harsh methods. In one case, according to medical records obtained by TIME, a 20-year old named Yusuf al-Shehri, jailed since he was 16, was regularly strapped into a specially designed feeding chair that immobilizes the body at the legs, arms, shoulders and head. Then a plastic tube that is 50% larger, and more painful to insert, than the commonly used variety was inserted up through his nose and down his throat, carrying a nutritional formula into his stomach.

Thousands of people, of course, endure some form of voluntary intra-nasal feeding every day in hospital settings. But when force-feeding is involuntary and the recipient is in a state of high anxiety, the muscles tense up and the procedure can trigger nausea, bleeding, diarrhea and vomiting. "We are humane and compassionate," Guantanamo commander Harris told TIME, "but if we tell a detainee to do something, we expect the detainee to do it." As a note scrawled in al-Shehri's medical records put it: "[The prisoner] was informed that dying is not permitted."

Before this year, the feeding chair — marketed as a "padded cell on wheels" by its Iowa manfacturer — was evidently used sparingly. In comments several months ago, SOUTHCOM commander Gen. Bantz Craddock, who oversees Gitmo, joked that at least hunger strikers got to choose the color of their feeding tube (yellow was a favorite), and the flavor of the lozenges used to soothe thoats irritated by the feeding tubes. "Look, they get choices," Craddock said at the time. "And that's part of the problem." At the peak of a protest last fall, 131 protesters, or more than 25%, were on hunger strikes.


Officially, force-feeding at Gitmo is done with a tube 3mm. (or about .1 in.) across, the same size used in American hospitals. In a sworn statement last year, Gitmo's top physician at the time, Dr. John Edmondson, noted that "smaller tubes which remained in the patient for longer periods were more comfortable [and] easier to manage for medical personnel."

Al-Shehri's medical records, however, document the use of the larger tubes, which experts say have no medical purpose in this context. Al-Shehri's lawyer has also filed court documents citing lesions and bleeding caused when guards held him by the chin and hair, strapped down, as a medical staffer "forcefully inserted the tube in his nose and down his throat." The lawyer also charges that al-Sherhri was subject to verbal and religious abuse during force-feeding, asserting that the tubes "were viewed by the detainees as objects of torture." The records also show that instead of leaving the tube in place to avoid the possible trauma of repeated insertions, al-Shehri had his introduced and withdrawn at each of his two daily feedings.

And this leads to another problem.


In March, as a result of these allegations, more than 250 medical professionals signed an open letter to the British medical journal The Lancet, demanding an end to force-feeding. They cited the code of ethics of the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association, both of which condemn the force-feeding of prisoners as an assault on human dignity — so long as they're capable of making an informed decision not to eat. But that's the conundrum: How do you know what is an informed decision at Gitmo? Are detainees there, who are imprisoned in an isolated environment far from their families for an indefinite period, capable of making a rational and autonomous choice to starve themselves?
Please note exactly what is occurring here. We deliberately and systematically create an irrational, cruel, viciously painful, incomprehensible nightmare without end -- a situation that could easily lead a person literally to lose his mind. And then, after we subject prisoners to this hell on earth for what is and could be an eternity, we condemn them for allegedly not being able to make rational decisions. "Blaming the victim" does not even begin to capture the evil this represents.

I draw your attention to the article's last paragraph, as well:
Yet hunger strikers have already won a measure of success. In part because of their protests, and the attention focused on Guantanamo, the U.S. is facing growing criticism — from both allies and enemies — for the rules of detention at the camp. Now the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision effectively grants prisoners at least some of their longstanding demands, including more rights at trial. All the same, most of them are unlikely to be released soon. Indeed, authorities are currently constructing a new, state-of-the-art, $30 million prison at Guantanamo, where they plan to consolidate many of the camp's maximum-security inmates. Harris argues the camp will be needed for the forseeable future, and that refusing to eat is not a cry for help, but a ploy drawn from the al-Qaeda playbook calculated to attract media attention and force the U.S. government to back down. "The will to resist of these detainees is high," says Harris. "They are waging their war, their jihad against America, and we just have to stop them."
We are rapidly reaching the point where redemption for us a nation will no longer even be possible.