By Timothy Murphy
Last Friday marked the 100th day of the detainees’ hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Imagine being force-fed, strapped to a chair while a tube goes through your nose and pumps food into your stomach; isolated from others in a single cell; held for more than a decade without being charged with a crime. A hunger fast is the only remaining protest the prisoners have against their wrongful status as dangerous enemy combatants.
I am not a Guantanamo detainee, but I too began a water-only hunger fast. I am an American and a Christian minister, offering my solidarity and support to these inmates.
At least 102 detainees—more, their attorneys say—are fasting while about 30 are being force-fed. This is a form of torture according to international organizations like the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Obama administration is caught between a rock and a hard place. It doesn’t want the detainees to die, so at least 40 additional medical personnel were sent to implement force-feeding. And yet, doing so is merely doubling down on a cruel practice. But what other option does the administration have?
Fortunately, there is another way: responding to detainees’ legitimate grievances, which would allow them to end their hunger strike on their terms. The administration’s apparent goal, however, is to stop the strike by breaking the prisoners’ hope, once and for all.
Various U.S. agencies have identified 86 of the facility’s 166 detainees as posing no threat, clearing them for release. Yemen nationals make up a significant portion of the inmates, and their government is ready to begin receiving them again. More than two years ago, however, the Obama administration placed a hold on all transfers to Yemen.
The time for excuses and delays is over.
The first step is to re-staff the position responsible for transferring detainees to other countries and allow the first of many such movements to begin. There haven’t been any transfers since September 2012. That alone might be enough of a “win” for detainees to end their hunger strike. It will not resolve all outstanding issues, but is an achievable goal on the path to shutting down Guantanamo permanently.
I had an experience that moved me to begin my water-only fast. One morning as I was contemplating the detainees’ situation over breakfast, my regular bowl of oatmeal sitting in front of me suddenly became unappetizing. In that moment I began my fast. It’s too easy for our government to ignore the plight of the prisoners, who to them are simply out of sight and out of mind. As amazing as the detainees’ efforts are, they do not have enough leverage on their own to change the administration’s policy.
But when U.S. citizens fast, when we care and call our elected officials, our actions are harder to ignore and dismiss.There are thousands of Americans who have begun supporting the Guantanamo detainees. Some fast one day a week, others for a single day.
Besides going without food and signing petitions, the best way to show your support is by making a phone call to our lawmakers. It takes only a moment of your time and may help save a life. Calling a member of Congress takes on average just two minutes, while phoning the White House as little as five. Call from your smartphone and you can check email or watch a video while you’re on hold. It’s the very least we can do to support the values we hold dear as Americans.
Some people question the focus on Guantanamo detainees. Aren’t there more pressing challenges facing our country, they wonder. But this is a problem for which prospects of having a real impact are high. President Obama campaigned in 2008 with promises to close Guantanamo, but has been thwarted by Congress. Making your voice heard supports both the detainees and our nation. Everybody wins.
The president needs our help. Obama has often said that movements must pressure him to make significant changes. “Make me do it” has been his refrain. The power of inertia is otherwise too great.
Though I have now ended my hunger fast, I will continue to push our president in whatever ways I can until he does the right thing. Let’s make him do it.
Timothy Murphy is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a Ph.D. student in religion at Claremont Lincoln University in Claremont, Calif. He maintained a water-only hunger fast in solidarity with Guantanamo detainees for seven days.
AP/Brennan Linsley, File
A detainee shields his face as he peers through the “bean hole,” which is used to pass food and other items into cells at Guantanamo Bay.