Two months ago, men stopped eating at the American prison at Guantanamo Bay. By last week, the Guantanamo hunger strike had spread to dozens of other inmates. The government puts the number of protesters at about 40; lawyers for the prisoners say that a majority of the more than 160 men being held are refusing food. At least 11 are being force-fed. After a visit to the detention facility last week, the Red Cross saw “a clear link” between the hunger strike and the “emotional state” of men held in suspended animation, illegally deprived not only of freedom, but of hope.
A month ago, President Obama said, “I am not a dictator.” He lacks the power, he explained, to “do a Jedi mind-meld” on legislators who thwart his proposals. He was speaking of a paralyzed budget process, but he could have been talking about Guantanamo. On his first day in office, in 2009, he signed an executive order closing the detention facility “no later than one year” from that date. It did not happen. Almost a year later, he ordered that a prison in Illinois be readied to receive detainees from Guantanamo. It did not happen. A year after that, he signed another order, to establish a review process for detainees. It did not happen.
At every stage, the president was blocked by Congress. Two months ago, the office of the State Department’s special envoy for closing Guantanamo was itself shut down, a signal of the administration’s defeat.
Obama may not be a dictator, but that is small comfort to prisoners held in Cuba. For them, there is no habeas corpus; no due process; no speedy trial; no being charged, even, with a crime. More than half of those held have already been cleared by review boards, which found them to be no threat to the United States. Yet not even they have been released and repatriated.
Such arbitrary imprisonment is an essential note of despotism, which is why America’s founders took pains to shun it. That President Obama bows before the limits of the Constitution, apparently washing his hands of the patently unjust fate of those being held, does not mean the Constitution goes unbetrayed.
On budget matters, at least, the president has threatened his congressional opponents by vowing to “speak to the American people about the consequences of the decisions that Congress is making.” He has done so, with positive results. In recent weeks, the political impasse over fiscal policy has eased considerably. The president has also mounted an aggressive campaign for gun control, making, as he puts it, “the best possible case for why we need to do the right thing.”
As for those unjustly held in Guantanamo? The president’s mute resignation on this question stands in stark contrast to his vocal determination on others. And not just vocal: This is the president, after all, who claims stand-alone authority to order assassination by drone, and to bypass Congress on immigration reform. But on Guantanamo, he can do nothing?
The fact that those being wrongly punished are all Muslims should disturb Americans all the more. In the name of protecting the United States from jihadists, the policy of indefinite, extralegal detention of Muslims has surely become the extremist recruiters’ great resource.
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. A US spokesman at Guantanamo, with barely contained contempt, dismissed the hunger strike as an “orchestrated event intended to garner media attention.” But of course that’s what it is. Getting attention is the point. If the president won’t make their case, they will make it themselves. 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.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.