The Pentagon has wonderful news for the inmates at Guantanamo who are refusing to eat: It will not infringe on their religious beliefs by force-feeding them during the daylight hours of the upcoming holy month. Their right to decline food will be scrupulously respected until nightfall.
"We understand that observing the daytime fast and taking nothing by mouth or vein is an essential component of Muslim observance of Ramadan," a prison spokesman said. "And for those detainees on hunger strike we will ensure that our preservation of life through enteral feeding does not violate the tenets of their faith."
Come sundown, though, the routine will resume. Let one of the hunger strikers tell us about it: "The process of being force-fed hurts a great deal. … Sometimes they botch putting the tube in, and tears stream down my cheek. … They shackle our feet with metal chains and shackle our arms and hands. … Then they put us in a force-feeding chair and tie us with belts. …
"I have thrown up myself sometimes because of the feeding. Especially at bedtime, I feel ill and start to throw up. I try to do it when they will not notice—because if they see me, they will put me in the chair and feed me again."
No need for sympathy, though, because they've brought it on themselves, right? They're the ones who refuse to take the life-sustaining nourishment provided by the U.S. government in its boundless concern for their well-being. All they have to do to avoid having a tube shoved up their nose and down their throat is to eat. What could be easier?
But maybe it's not so easy. To want to eat, it helps to have a reason to go on living. Because of circumstances beyond their control, many of the Guantanamo hunger strikers have none.
The inmate quoted above, Ahmed Belbacha, has been in the prison since March 2002. In 2007, a U.S. military review board cleared him for release. In 2009, he was cleared once again. But he doesn't want to be sent back to his native country, Algeria, where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a trial that his lawyers say was a fraud. There, he fears, he would be tortured or killed.
The Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to find another place for him. Congress has forbidden the transfer of any inmate, no matter how harmless, to U.S. soil. So he languishes behind bars, without guilt and without hope.
One of 45 detainees now being force-fed, Belbacha told his lawyer why he has chosen this potentially fatal option: "Hunger striking is the sole peaceful means that I have to protest my indefinite detention." He is one of some 86 inmates who have not been tried or convicted by the U.S. and have been found to pose no danger but face the prospect of being locked up for additional years or decades.
It's his life, which he is willing to risk rather than continue in this limbo of despair. But the U.S. government is not willing to let him have his way with his corporeal form. In defense of the force-feeding, President Barack Obama has said, "I don't want these individuals to die."
But that should not be his choice to make. The same president who ended waterboarding because it constitutes torture persists in a practice that by international standards is also intolerably cruel. In 2006, a panel convened by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights said the force-feeding "must be assessed as amounting to torture."
Four of the prisoners have filed a lawsuit requesting an end to it. But given the reluctance of the federal courts to impede the president in doing whatever he chooses in the war on terror, their chance of success is close to zero.
It would be unpleasant for the administration to accept the possibility that these detainees will die by starvation. But it might also force the American public and its elected representatives to wake up to the needless, open-ended suffering that is being inflicted on innocent people. It might induce other nations to accept freed inmates.
It might do none of these things. Then maybe the hunger strikers will conclude they are better off dead. If that choice reflects badly on us, it should.