Liberty or Death

When I first heard the news of the hunger strike at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, my impulse was to tune it out. A few days later The New York Times printed a column on its op-ed page by one of the strikers, and my eyes moved past it to other articles on the page. What he described was too awful to contemplate: the detention center, still open after all these years; the prisoners languishing in the legal black hole they’ve been cast into for more than a decade; the coercive measures the authorities at Guantánamo were taking against the hunger strikers. Years ago I read Dorothy Day’s description of her experience in prison in 1917 after she and other women picketing outside the White House for women’s suffrage were arrested. The suffragists staged a hunger strike to dramatize their cause.

“Those first six days of inactivity were as 6,000 years,” Day wrote in her memoir, The Long Loneliness. “To lie there through the long day, to feel the nausea and emptiness of hunger, the dazedness at the beginning and the feverish mental activity that came after.”

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Eventually, the women were moved into solitary hospital cells. An older woman was being force-fed in the cell next to hers. “It was unutterably horrible to hear her struggles,” Day recalled.

As of this writing, 100 of the 166 prisoners remaining at Guantánamo are on hunger strike. Their demand is one heard in this country long ago: Give me liberty or give me death. They are saying no to indefinite detention without trial, saying no in the only way possible for them—by risking their lives.

It seems a terrible irony that the men confined in Guantánamo are bearing witness to the human need for dignity and freedom, that the country that confines them is one that holds itself out as a beacon of freedom to the world but will neither try these men nor let them go. Due process and the rule of law do not exist at Guantánamo.

In recent years, Congress has restricted detainees at Guantánamo from being transferred to the mainland or to other countries, but the Pentagon can grant individual exceptions. None has been given, though many of the men are innocent of any crime. Eighty-six of them have been cleared for release or transfer, some by the Bush administration years ago. Fifty-six prisoners are Yemenis, who cannot go home because Mr. Obama has barred transfers to Yemen, citing security concerns about the country.

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, the author of The New York Times op-ed, is one of these. “I could have been home years ago—no one seriously thinks I am a threat—but still I am here,” he writes.

Moqbel is one of 23 prisoners being force-fed as of this writing, a procedure the World Medical Association has called torture and that the 35-year-old Yemeni describes: “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

Until I saw myself ignore the news about Guantánamo, I had always wondered at the silence of people in countries where historic human rights crimes had been committed. I’d attributed their inaction to indifference. Perhaps for some it was. Perhaps others simply felt helpless, thinking, as I had, that nothing they could do would change the situation. Living, many of them, in conditions where protest might cost them their liberty or even their life, they had a greater excuse than I do for inaction. I am free, after all, unlike the prisoners in Guantánamo, who can protest only by not eating.

My mind turned to Dorothy Day when I heard about Guantánamo because she had described so vividly the misery of that brief time she spent on hunger strike when she felt only desolation and despair. It’s a curious accident that the same woman would in later life demonstrate the strength of Christian conscience, protesting against war, nuclear weapons and oppression. She and the desperate men at Guantánamo make me realize that hope is not an emotion but an action, a step often taken in darkness and against all odds.

Click here for America's complete coverage of the Guantánamo prison.

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