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Terror Tuesday: “Guantanamo is America’s moral failure”

As the latest hunger strike at Guantanamo enters its third grueling month, Americans are getting a long overdue wake up call from the mainstream media.

"It’s time to close that shameful political prison and end the lawless indefinite detention," The New York Times proclaimed in an editorial on April 6 that deserves to be quoted at length:

The hunger strike that has spread since early February among the 166 detainees still at Guantanamo Bay is again exposing the lawlessness of the system that marooned them there. The government claims that around 40 detainees are taking part. Lawyers for detainees report that their clients say around 130 detainees in one part of the prison have taken part.

The number matters less than the nature of the protest, however: this is a collective act of despair. Prisoners on the hunger strike say that they would rather die than remain in the purgatory of indefinite detention. Only three prisoners now in Guantanamo have been found guilty of any crime, yet the others also are locked away, with dwindling hope of ever being released….

For 86 detainees, this is a particular outrage. They were approved for release three years ago by a government task force, which included civilian and military agencies responsible for national security…

The Obama administration justifies the force-feeding of detainees as protecting their safety and welfare. But the truly humane response to this crisis is to free prisoners who have been approved for release, end indefinite detention and close the prison at Guantanamo.

National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and CBS News have both recently featured Guantanamo, highlighting the lawless morass that is US government policy.

The focus of the CBS piece is Shaker Aamer, a British resident and father of four who has been in Guantanamo for 11 years after being sold to Americans in exchange for a cash bounty. He had been cleared for release in 2007, yet is still there six years later, despite a huge campaign on his behalf in the UK and a request for his return from the British government.

Here is a passage from a letter that Shaker Aamer sent to his wife Zinnira about an earlier hunger strike, which is reproduced in Victoria Brittain’s haunting book Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror:

I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway. I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 pounds. I dropped to 150 pounds in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no help, no ‘intensive assisted feeding.’ This is my legal right.

Detainees like Shaker Aamer who were wrongly swept up in the ‘War on Terror’ remain stranded in Guantanamo for a variety of outrageous reasons, including the Obama Administration’s growing indifference and lack of political courage.

After the Christmas Day 2009 ‘underwear bombing’ plot, the President decided that Yemen was too unstable to supervise returning Yemeni detainees – so some two dozen Yemenis who have been cleared for release are stuck there indefinitely, possibly forever.

As far as Congress is concerned, ‘forever’ isn’t long enough. It has repeatedly erected hurdles to prevent any detainees from being transferred out of the prison, including requiring the Secretary of Defense to certify in writing that a released prisoner would never commit a terrorist act.

But now, this latest hunger strike has raised the stakes in a manner that might even induce Members of Congress to conclude that its consequences could be profoundly damaging to efforts to promote the US as a democracy that believes in the rule of law.

As Boston Globe columnist James Carroll writes:

In the face of congressional stasis and presidential withdrawal, the prisoners themselves are taking action. By refusing to eat they are refusing to be ignored…Like other hunger strikers before them, they are appealing to the conscience of their oppressors…

In normal dictatorships, citizens lack the power to influence their rulers, and therefore can’t be held responsible for criminal deeds by their government. But democracy is different. The American public is fully responsible for what is done in its name. Prisoners at Guantanamo know that, which is why their refusal to eat is addressed to the nation.

What must happen before this travesty is resolved? Detainees starving to death? If so, the world will see that all it takes for America to act like a dictatorship is the moral indifference of its citizens.

That moral indifference is on display in sometimes grotesque ways. For instance, the theme of this year’s annual corporate fling in Coachella, California is "The New Guantanamo," featuring (according to the invitation) "playful torture by Smashbox Studios with beats poured by French music and fashion label Kitsune. This one will go until dawn."

Mildly good news is that organizers have to find another group to administer that "playful torture," since Smashbox Studios reportedly withdrew its sponsorship after learning of the theme of the party, deeming it "inappropriate."

More uplifting is the lengths to which some Americans of conscience have gone to awaken their country to the “moral failure” that is Guantanamo.

Below, Boston area resident Susan McLucas gives her reasons for participating in a solidarity fast with the Guantanamo hunger strikers:

I've been concerned about Guantanamo even since I heard about it, right after it opened in 2002. When I heard that there was another big hunger strike going on there, I wanted to do something to bring attention to it.

Witness Against Torture, in Washington ( organized a sympathy fast and I decided to join in. Many of them did a week but I decided four days was all I could do. I made a flier that I put around asking people to raise their voices against Guantanamo and indefinite detention and wrote a letter to the editors of the Globe, which they did not choose to print, asking that they cover the hunger strike as an important story.

I think it's so outrageous that all those men are still at Guantanamo after 11 years and that many have actually been ‘cleared for release.’ I cannot imagine what that's like, wondering if and when you will ever be released from detention.

The Red Cross has said famously that the vast majority of these men are totally innocent and the ones who really are ‘our’ enemies in the ‘War on Terror’ would not be fighting the US if we were not occupying their lands.

Earlier this year, on January 11, the eleventh anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, a few of us held a protest at the JFK Building, trying to highlight the ongoing injustice of this place.

I went to Washington in 2011 and joined Witness Against Torture in their January actions around the same anniversary. It was inspiring to circle the Justice Department with a person in a jumpsuit for every prisoner at Guantanamo, at that point 170-some. It was a nice contrast with my usual protests of four or five, or sometimes fewer.

Around 2004 and 2005, I participated in a Friday fast for a couple of years along with Desmond Tutu and others around the world calling for Guantanamo to be closed. I have kept the habit of wearing my jumpsuit every Friday since then.

I hope we're getting somewhere in this struggle. It's really hard to tell.

I am recovering nicely from the strain of fasting for four days. I cannot imagine what it's like to be in the third month of a hunger strike. It's getting very serious. I hope the world hears the cries from Guantanamo before it's too late.

Susan McLucas

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.