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What It Means to Starve for Freedom in Guantanamo
(Photo: Debra Sweet / Flickr)

What It Means to Starve for Freedom in Guantanamo

(Photo: Debra Sweet / Flickr)

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Former physician George Pauk takes a closer look at the Guantanamo hunger strikers and hypothesizes about where starvation fits into our freedom today.

Recently I attended a public demonstration by activists that are protesting the extreme situation of the prisoners of Guantanamo, our military base in Cuba. Briefly, the demonstration in front of the White House can be described as a public cry of empathy with the prisoners who are imprisoned in a torturous situation and a demand for immediate remedial action. The prisoners, many of them declared innocent, are being held in what are clearly conditions of torture, and many of them have now come to a conclusion of starving for freedom. Our government has responded by force-feeding them.

This situation is not new; it is a real and vital part of human history. For as long as humans have existed it is likely that starvation and death related to the sense of freedom have played a significant role in our behavior. We cannot shrink from this reality and assign this to psychological or religious contemplation. The forceful fact of this relationship is simply that many of us will some day encounter death assisted by starvation. It is not only the possible take over of our metabolism by a disease such as a cancer that greedily gobbles our nutrients. We, like the prisoners, may have the experience of the complex of situations wherein modern technology puts us at odds with our appetite of life. The variety of these terminal situations is large, and it pleads that we understand and tolerate the importance of the role that starvation “plays” in our culture.

As a physician of many years experience, I have witnessed many aspects of persons dying that most people have not seen. The details of the dying process are important to all of us regardless of our strong tendency or taboo of discussion of this phenomenon.

Most physicians who deal with dying people know that there is a slippery slope of feeding tubes and intravenous tubes that balances many factors such as living wills, family interests, religious concepts and legal ramifications. They also know that pneumonia is not the main “friend of the aged,” it is the fortunately peaceful repose and demise that dehydration and starvation bring to the terminal condition. IVs and NG tubes used appropriately and ethically assist and save lives, but like all technology are also subject to abuse. We know the painful and, at times, harmful repeated trials to push a tube into the proper pathway to the stomach of an uncooperative person.

We have long observation and study of starvation. One of the many parts of the story of starvation and freedom is the important phenomenon of anorexia. Anorexia, the loss of appetite, has an important role in our culture. Perhaps it has evolved with us to be a pacifier of our starvation distress. We have learned of the fact that when we starve, we have within us subtle mechanisms of metabolism and brain sensibility that dampen or exclude hunger for food and even water. This anorexia is slow in onset, and fortunately, this allows for reasonable delays in our vital search and drive for food. Usually anorexia comes only after many days of fasting, but interestingly, it often comes to those seriously sick with disease even while they consume food. Does it come also to those of us who are tortured and unjustly imprisoned? Perhaps.

Anorexia is best known for its occurrence among young women or men who have serious issues with their body image. This too is a complex and poorly understood part of our culture. Perhaps the key aspect for us is to view this kind of anorexia as related to the style of fashion of body images in our culture. This does not seem to be related to freedom.

Politics is deeply involved with starvation. Distribution of food and water in our world is quite uneven, and malnutrition or starvation is real. It is constantly recurring in parts of many cultures including our own. In America it appears that even as poverty increases, we are decreasing food assistance. International organizations support the human right of adequate food and nutrition as a right. However, as a nation, we obviously do not regard the prevention of malnutrition and starvation as a high priority. On the other hand, we are strangely quite intolerant of voluntary starvation of our prisoners. In the American culture, it seems that many now feel that death by starvation is not a human right. Since the invention of the flexible tube, we have found the empowerment to stuff it into the digestive tract to put food into both cooperative and uncooperative people.

In our unwelcome base of Guantanamo, we are now confronted with an obvious mistake and terrible situation. The American hysteria of terrorism and our war machine has given us a collection of prisoners of an undeclared war. They now confront our basic values and ethics. We have again fallen into our history of racism and religious intolerance by indefinitely impounding a class of people.

Today our ethics and human rights morals are being affronted and tarnished by the collective action and inaction of our politicians and our nation’s indifference. That is why activists gather to display signs, names of prisoners, prison garb, solitary and cage imprisonment conditions and demonstrate the brutal tube feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo. The demonstrators point out at the White House, and at many sites across our nation, the tragedy of the situation wherein the militarist, and macho and fear-centered culture of this nation are persistently subverting our American standards of justice and the international laws of nations. Our injustice and obstinacy, especially of some members of our Congress, is continuing to build and reap the enmity of most of the people of our world.

At this moment of American history, we must promptly correct a terrible situation in our government and the Guantanamo prison.

Since the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster, we have sometimes openly, and sometimes secretly, engaged an extensive series of illegal procedures. In addition to an Orwellian state of surveillance of ourselves, we have resulted in torturous detentions in various obscure places and Guantanamo. Now we face the exquisite ethical dilemma of prisoners opting for starvation as their protest or freedom to death.

President Obama initially promised to close the prison at Guantanamo. One hundred and sixty-six prisoners now continue at Guantanamo. Eighty-six of them have been cleared for transfer or release but remain in indefinite detention. Over 100 of the prisoners have participated in refusal to eat. Resolution of the Guantanamo debacle is now impeded by a ridiculous series of political games and legislation. Our State Department closed the office charged with closing the prison until recently, when they were forced to reopen it after public protests.

Worse yet, now 21 of the prisoners are being brutally restrained and tube fed to keep them alive. We hear of serious complications and injuries of the invasive probes. The issue is now a major national and international disgrace. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture founder, Dr. George Hunsinger, eloquently spoke about the unfolding human crisis at Guantanamo. “The consequences of ignoring Guantanamo,” he said, “its abuses, and its hunger-striking detainees are enormous – not only for America, but for the prisoners themselves, many of whom have reached the point that they would prefer to die rather than persist in more years of indefinite detention, which is itself tantamount to torture.”

Specific actions and steps for correction of this abuse of our democracy have been detailed and presented to our leaders. Now, right now, is the time to stop the torture, release the innocent prisoners, transfer others to their countries of origin, move those suspected of crimes into immediate legal process and get out of Cuba. President Obama can do much now to serve basic human rights if he will step forward.

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