Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Question of Force-Feeding at Guantanamo Bay

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned an op-ed by Guantanamo Bay prisoner Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, highlighting a couple questions raised by the current situation at Guantanamo bay. The first concerns whether it is ethical for the government of the United States to be holding prisoners at Guantanamo bay without charge and without trial. The second concerns whether it is ethical for the government to force-feed prisoners on hunger strikes via containment chairs.

I addressed the first two weeks ago, so this week, it's my intention to tackle the second one (to the best of my abilities).

The situation is unbelievably messy, largely due to miscarriages of justice in other places (as I talked about in my column last week), and I don't have any clear answers. So instead of giving the analysis of an amateur ethicist, I'd simply like to flesh out a few relevant ethical principles that frame the discussion and pose the question to you.

  1. Life. The first principle that comes to mind is the protection of life. Obviously, the United States government has motivations for keeping prisoners alive, based on both political expediency and as intelligence resources. But more fundamentally, we believe that the lives of human beings, by virtue of being human beings, are intrinsically valuable and that their lives ought to be protected.
  1. Autonomy and Political Expression. The rejoinder to the life principle is that of autonomy -- the ability to make one's own free, rational decision. Life ought to be defended, even, it would seem, up to the point of defending someone's life from themselves. But the situation surrounding hunger strikes is a bit complicated. The prisoners participating in hunger strikes are not actively trying to take their own life. They are trying to use one of the few methods of public expression available to them to bring public attention to their situation. Does a person have a personal right to deprive themselves of basic necessities, even to the point of death, as a form of expression?

    There is precedence for accepting hunger strikes as a legitimate means of protest. Mahatma Gandhi participated in hunger strikes while protesting the British rule in India. A number of Cuban prisoners have used hunger strikes as a means of speaking out against an oppressive regime. It seems that, when it comes to hunger strikes, we often applaud those we agree with but refuse this form of expression to those we don't.
  1. Martyrdom. Some raise the objection that allowing prisoners to starve themselves to death leads to them becoming martyrs for their cause. But martyrdom doesn't just occur when the martyr dies. A person who is living under treatment that is believed to be unjust and who is suffering in an attempt to bring awareness to the issue is likely to viewed as a martyr already. Given the op-ed we've seen above, if the prisoners are going to be viewed as martyrs for their cause, it's probable that they're being viewed as such already.
  1. Torture. The United Nations has recently condemned the practice of force feeding as torture. The World Medical Association also has a standing document from 1975 condemning all force-feeding as unethical. The claim to torture is tied up with a number of other principles, in part, the fact that it infringes upon the prisoner's autonomy. More fundamentally, though, it inflicts excruciating pain upon the subject, as is described by Moqbel in his op-ed.
Having articulated that handful of principles (though the list is by no means exhaustive), let me hear your thoughts on whether or not the United States government should continue force-feeding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Posted by Nick Barden.
Photo: Guantanamo Bay

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