Have we no Shame? Will Hunger Strikes and medical Torture finally close Guantanamo? (Hickman)

John Hickman, author of Selling Guantanamo, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Curious isn’t it how the decision-making of the United States Government is also imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay? In a seemingly escape-proof blame game President Obama insists that the U.S. Congress prevents him from closing the prison while Congressional Republicans insist either that he has failed to offer a workable plan to dispose of the prisoners or that the prison is an irreplaceable asset. The only serious effort to break out of this separation of powers tragedy is coming from the prisoners themselves.

The latest iteration in the rhetorical loop between the executive and legislative branches began with the President Obama’s May 23rd speech at the National Defense University, wherein an impending return to normality following the War on Terror was announced. Dawn is to break after a long and frightening night. The now familiar promise to close Guantanamo was renewed, with the accompanying qualification that the Congress must permit him to act. That same day we heard Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss and Kelly Ayotte respond at a press conference with their reasons why the Guantanamo prisoners must remain right where they are. McCain and Graham’s comments can be ignored because their arguments are ignored by most voters; Chambliss and Ayotte’s comments merit attention because they reflect the nonsense believed by most Republican and many Independent voters.

In the stentorian tones of an Old South hanging judge, Chambliss said that “we’ve got 166 of the meanest, nastiest killers in the world located at Guantanamo Bay today…” A vast exaggeration. Despite diligent efforts to identify dangerous figures among the prisoners, [pdf] the Guantanamo Review Task Force managed to finger only 48 in its January 22, 2010 report.

Clearly, what mattered was not the math but the chance to repeat the ‘worst of the worst’ part of the justification for the original Guantanamo decision. Chambliss’s interest was in protecting the legacy of the Bush administration and not in protecting the safety of the American people.

Ayotte repeated a different part of the original justification when it was her turn at the podium. Obviously nervous, she insisted that Guantanamo must remain open to “maximize intelligence.” The belief is that interrogations conducted at Guantanamo somehow produce better information than interrogations conducted elsewhere. That there is nothing to back up this conviction hardly matters.

What Chambliss and Ayotte recognize is that support for keeping Guantanamo open among Republican and Independent voters is not a matter of facts or reason, but instead of emotion. Guantanamo is the symbol and the location for the performance of vengeance against enemies, or more accurately those who are selected to take their place. Given Obama’s reluctance to hold anyone accountable for the crimes of the Bush administration and an amnesiac American press, it would be surprising if Congressional Republicans passed up any opportunity to repeat the original justification for the Guantanamo decision.

That’s why the ongoing hunger strike among Gitmo prisoners matters. Many of them have either been cleared for release or never tried, and despair has driven them to the strike. Obama’s bloodless rhetoric about effectiveness and efficiency falls of deaf ears. However, the image of prisoners starving themselves in the name of justice elicits powerful emotional responses from any news audiences. Even from Republicans and Independents. No other form of self-sacrifice is so visceral.

What’s more, the Pentagon’s policy of force-feeding the hunger strikers not only reinforces the unconscious identification with the prisoners but threatens to expose more Americans to the shocking history of medicalized torture that was the reality of “harsh interrogation tactics.”

Having relied on appeals to primitive emotion to manipulate American public opinion since 9/11, the conservative architects of the War on Terror may now be undone by the very same force. Fear and hate may dissolve in identification with suffering.


John Hickman is Associate Professor. Department: Government and International Studies at Berry College and author most recently of Selling Guantanamo: Exploding the Propaganda surrounding America’s most notorious military Prison (University Press of Florida, 2013)

13 Responses

  1. We have no shame. Water-boarding has turned to Food-boarding,sometimes I feel that the disaster in Guantanamo is poetic justice,a Cuban revenge, sure the land is “leased” but the aggression” is “owned” by us.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Cole, for raising this issue.

    It would be EASY for the White House to close Gitmo and send the prisoners somewhere else. This could EASILY be done while complying FULLY with both current and future Congressional restrictions.
    Tom Donilon knows this for sure, because I sent him a blueprint.

    So, the Administration CHOOSES not to resolve this, for reasons they appear reluctant to discuss.

  3. The Administration “chooses not to resolve this” because hunger strikes are a form of “ayssemetrical warfare” against this country and as such are a form of attack which should be met with force. We should not allow actions of the terrorist criminals held in Guantanamo to force the closure of one of our treasured institutions.

    Okay, just to be sure everyone does not mistake me, my tongue was firmly in my cheek.

  4. C’mon Cole and co. He gave a pretty speech about the rule of law! And did you see how he stood up to that evil Code Pink protestor who pointed out the disconnect between his words and his actions? What more do you want?

    I don’t know why the GOP is worried, it’s not like Obama is actually going to do anything other than say words to further opiate his feckless base. He could close Gitmo tomorrow if he so decided, but he won’t because there’s no upside to doing so outside of the unquantifiable “moral high ground,” and plenty of downside including the extremely high possibility that the prisoners will tell the world in increasingly gruesome detail the tortures they endured just so a couple of Presidents and their respective underlings could feel like they had biggest dicks in the room.

  5. The effort to insist that both sides are equally to blame falls flat.

    In a seemingly escape-proof blame game President Obama insists that the U.S. Congress prevents him from closing the prison while Congressional Republicans insist either that he has failed to offer a workable plan to dispose of the prisoners or that the prison is an irreplaceable asset.

    One of these statements is true. One of them is false.

    It is bad journalism to merely report what both sides say, without making an effort to report on what is true and what is false. That practice is how we ended with the existence of global warming being in doubt.

  6. This is one of the best articles on feared justice I have come across. The powers to be would not want to read this and might find it real hard to publish it. Thank You “Informed”.
    So Bush created the distorted lying game of round and round politically feared (ing)justice and Obama gave him cover and looked the OTHER WAY. He (Barack)may find no way out at this at this point. He created the monster on his first week in office by protecting a less that honorable prior president. And he went to college to practice law? Harvard should ask for the return of his papers. I’d like to ask him to make the necessary decisions to close Guantanamo and free Bradley Manning, a purveyor of truth for a right justice or hand in his papers and go home. Chicago needs a new mayor.
    Anyway, I find this article exceptional. Thanks

  7. Dear Professor Hickman, I wish I could believe that the American public will empathize with the suffering of the prisoners and force a change. But what is the evidence for this? The major news sources pay little if any attention, and there seems to be no demand for action coming from the public, beyond the tiny activist population of Code Pink and the like. To truly confront what is happening in Guantánamo and acknowledge its horrors would require the public and the Congress to acknowledge the terror that has been inflicted on millions of people, not just those in Guantánamo, by the USG with the full compliance of the public for years. It is very difficult to imagine this happening…

  8. Regarding the “sucessful” use of torture.

    Remember the abduction and torture of CIA chief of station William F. Buckley in Beirut. Within a short period of time the CIA informants in the area turned up dead or missing and it was presumed that Buckley passed secrets during the torture sessions. Buckley died after repeated torture sessions, per information received by the U.S. government.

    Islamic Jihad was righfuly castigated over the killing, abduction, and torture of Western individuals in Beirut during the 1980s. The Buckley incident caused great discomfiture among top government officials within the Reagan administration and he was eventually awarded the CIA’s highest honor posthumously.

    America’s employment of the same methods used by terrorist elements results in a loss of moral standing and only encourages further like acts by those elements it so vehemently denounces.

    • Buckley actually had “information” that meant something in the Game. Who knows “who” grabbed him and did the “enhanced interrogation,” and for what purposes in that little corner of the Game board? Mopes grabbed off the street and “entered” into the machinery of our institutionalized Gulag were apparently “enhanced” way beyond the point where it was clear they had no “secrets to pass.” And the shameful lockdown and abuse continues, in significant part because setting those people free would make them able to relate their treatment at the hands of “our” very own Jack Bauers and heroic “agents.”

      Maybe part of the operant conditioning and idiot momentum that gifts us with Guantanamo in our Brave New World of Perpetual 4th Generation Warfare is that “we,” the military-state security apparat that operates the Guantanolag, have only this kind of programmed response to being defeated, time and again, by not only the tiny number of individuals who plot and set off bombs and stuff in the “homeland” or against “US interests,” whatever that means, not having been intercepted by the mostly effective plain old police work, but by plain people who dare to show tenacity and dignity in the face of Imperial Troopers and folks whose thinking and behavior, as best one can see, recalls other similar state-security entities.

      These captives, or whatever one could accurately and honestly call them, mostly posed no “threat,” but since they are weak and “we” are strong, guess what happens? Jack Bauer, maybe?

      And I say that last bit with mixed feelings, having been on the receiving end of 4th Gen strategy and tactics, link to google.com, and having the reasons that “troops” always have had (racism, fear of getting killed, loss of some of our Band of Brothers, revenge and over-revenge, the stuff that motivated the Phoenix Program and its apologists and revisionists, etc.) to want, in my war, to “punish” the “gooks.”

  9. I have some really, really good news, folks:
    the guards at Gitmo AREN’t force-feeding anyone, after all.

    So says their 4-star General Commander:
    link to miamiherald.com
    Money quote:
    “We don’t force-feed right now at Gitmo,” the Marine general said.

    That’s a relief!

  10. If the majority of citizens don’t care about the conditions in which these prisoners are held, I don’t think they will care if or how they die. I venture to say that a common response might be, ‘good riddance.’ Shame indeed!

    • Exactly. Why should U.S. Congressman advocate for the rights of these prisoners when there is no corresponding political benefit?

      The argument also is deterrence. The U.S. wants to let Al-Qaeda know that in the event of capture, a place exists like Guantanamo in which they can expect painful retribution. Same argument for deploying the drones. Don’t committ acts of terror and you will not have to worry about America’s “bad side”.

      France had Devil’s Island – this place in Cuba is not
      uch better. The Soviets had the Gulag system to stifle political dissent and the Nazis had the SS-administered concentration camps.

      The punishment and deterrent objectives of Guantanamo are impressive -even if they violate international law.

  11. Someone needs to listen to Sean Baker the Army Specialist who went “undercover” as a detainee in a guard training exercise at GITMO.

    He was assaulted and beaten so bad by American servicemen he sustained alleged brain damage and is now collecting disability benefits and suing the government.

    The Army captors being trained in cell extraction were told the undercover Baker was a unruly detainee who was held for assaulting an American soldier. Baker’s pleas that he was really an American soldier were ignored during the beating until the assaultive guards saw his Army uniform underneath the prison-issued inmate jumpsuit they were tearing away from his body.

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