Scary psychological torture: The real message behind force-feeding hunger strikers

By making Gitmo and other prison strikers eat, we're saying they can neither live nor die on their own terms

Published August 26, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Black is white, white is black: In the totalitarian state, reversal of meaning goes hand in hand with control of information. Both are required to make people give up freedom. During times of war, what Orwell called Newspeak flourishes with particular vigor. It generates the necessary obfuscation, and the mantra-like, tautological arguments that keep the war machine going.

The Bush administration had a genius for this. It taught us that we were attacked because they hated our freedom. Then it convinced us that freedom isn't free, therefore we must pay for it -- in blood, and tax contributions to the defense industry -- and we must trade much of it for security. As Karl Rove put it, an empire creates its own reality: When Iraq was declared an existential threat, the very magnitude of that perceived threat trumped the need for proof.  We couldn't afford to look for a smoking gun, because the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.

After all, we were in a "war against terror." The phrase wasn't just rhetorical claptrap: It was a conceptual setup. It pointed at something elusive, yet limitless -- something that ultimately, by definition, resided in our own mind. It removed, right at the start of the war, any measurable standard by which to end it.

A similar Newspeak expression removed the standards by which we were supposed to behave. We were told that our troops were fighting "enemy combatants" -- a stateless military entity, with all the attributes we needed to wage war but not the ones that would bind us to the "quaint" Geneva conventions. We were at war inasmuch as that justified special powers, emergency laws and ever-growing military budgets, but we would not have "prisoners of war." Instead, we would have nonspecific "detainees," stripped of any and all rights. The absence of a mutual framework simply meant that we could design our own as we pleased.

An "enemy combatant" was the perfect enemy: one who might be killed on suspicion, whose lack of uniform justified collateral killing, and who might be imprisoned without charge until the end of a conflict that didn't have to end. Once captured, he existed in a gray area outside legal precedent, outside the Constitution, outside any public scrutiny -- in secret prisons, black sites, in the American/non-American territory of Guantánamo, where we could exert maximum power with minimum oversight.  In this legal netherworld he might be subject to torture -- a torture that we didn't take responsibility for, because we outsourced it to dictatorial regimes, or we preemptively designated it as legal "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- which of course we would call torture if it were used by the enemy against Americans. Black is white. White is black.

President Obama -- a lawyer and a progressive, a president who ran on hope and change, promised to close Guantánamo, and won a Nobel Prize for Peace -- has sadly furthered this corruption of legal principle more than anyone might have feared. Under his watch we experienced the killing by drone strike of Americans citizens, including a teenager whose main sin was to have been born to the wrong father. Extrajudicial executions came to include "signature strikes" -- another shining example of Newspeak meaning we don't know who we're killing, of what exactly they have done -- only that they fit "patterns" indicating they are a future threat.

But what has been happening in Guantánamo is perhaps even scarier.

Current prisoners who have been in detention for up to a decade have not been charged. In fact, most of them have actually been deemed un-chargeable for lack of evidence, and cleared for release. There is a kind of torture that goes beyond the isolation or physical abuse. It's the psychological torture of denied hope, the indifference of a government that keeps you in prison just because it can. This is why the Guantánamo prisoners went on a hunger strike.

Prison authorities answered the protest with force-feeding -- a violent and painful procedure, involving restraints and nasal intubation, that the United Nations and most medical ethicists consider another form of torture. The force-feeding has allegedly included a brain-altering drug. Over the course of a decade, Guantánamo detainees have thus been stripped first of freedom, then of the right to defend themselves in court, and finally of the right to protest -- even through the starving of their own bodies. The U.S. government won't let them return to their lives, yet it refuses to be embarrassed by their death. Prison officers have stated in the recent past that a hunger strike constitutes asymmetrical warfare -- an expression in which "warfare" applies to a form of protest made famous by Gandhi, and "asymmetrical" is intended as a pejorative (as if symmetry were an option).

The government is effectively telling its detainees: You can no longer live -- not in the basic sense of having a self-determined life -- but neither can you die on your own terms. You can only exist in the nightmare limbo we have created for you, for as long as we deem appropriate. The government owns you -- body and mind. It owns your health, which it can restrict, and it owns your pain -- which you will feel when and how the government sees fit. In fact, ownership extends to those with whom you communicate, because the very memories you may share can be considered "classified." We will track and silence your thoughts all the way into the minds of others. You haven't been killed: That would be politically inconvenient. You have been unmade.  As the object of our absolute power, you're only supposed to speak the message we approve.

This is the ultimate purpose of torture: forcing upon the victim the language of total submission, one that reflects and amplifies the power of the torturer. It's a language that is made out of moaning and screaming, or of surrender and confession.  It's the language of power itself, speaking through the body of the powerless. (Read Elaine's Scarry's essential book "The Body in Pain" for an extensive articulation of these ideas, which I am borrowing and reinterpreting.)

Technologies of incarceration transcend the physical space of prison. They are blueprints for social control.  A prison is a laboratory for power -- in which power tests and pushes its limits, perfecting skills that it then applies to society at large.  The prisoner himself is a project: It foreshadows the perfect citizen of an authoritarian regime, one that has no privacy, no secrets, and no access to the secrets of the powerful. One fit to live under the kind of government that would build a remote $2 billion facility to gather and store our private communications, as part of "programs" it won't disclose, or it will lie about.

Guantánamo is not the only place where a hunger strike has been taking place. Over 30,000 prisoners in California (at the highest point) have been on their own strike to protest solitary confinement -- the segregation of alleged gang members for years and decades in tiny individual cells for 23 hours a day (the one hour outside the cell is spent in a larger cage, still alone).  There are several studies analyzing the devastating effects of this on the human mind: Solitary confinement is, in essence, a method to produce insanity. No rebranding of it as "Secure Housing," "Intensive Management" or "Restricted Engagement" can change this stark fact. This week, a federal judge gave prison authorities the power to force-feed California prisoners. Once again, protest against torture would thus be met with more torture. Prisoners would not to be allowed to starve themselves of food, while they are starved of sunlight, fresh air, human contact.

There is one way out of solitary under the current system, and that is "debriefing" -- or as prisoners call it, snitching.  Which means that for one who goes out, several more go in. The snitch will then become a pariah and a target for retaliation.

This is simply an extreme, naked manifestation of how the criminal justice system works. Prosecutions are, by and large, built on evidence provided by informants -- generally under duress, always for personal interest. Betrayal of friends is encouraged and rewarded. Loyalty is punished. And yet, when a whistle-blower exposes crimes committed by the government, the whistle-blower's actions become a bigger offense than anything he or she exposed (including torture and murder). The government denies that it's dealing with a legitimate whistle-blower (as if that determination was up to the ones hiding their own crimes).  The whistle-blower is accused of espionage (as if the government wasn't leaking to the media every day). The revelations are said to have "aided the enemy" (as if the government's own crimes weren't the enemy's best recruiting tool).  A "real" whistle-blower -- says the government -- must use government channels, just like women in the military should report rape through the chain of command (even when it might include their rapists).

President Obama had once promised to strengthen protection for whistle-blowers. Instead, his administration has prosecuted more of them than all previous administrations combined. The promise has been discreetly scrubbed from the website where it had originally appeared.

Guantánamo is far away for a reason: so that what happens there stays out of sight. But what happens there, just like what happens in Pelican Bay, affects all of us, as citizens and as human beings. These prisons are not just outliers. They are an experiment -- part of the larger project of post-constitutional America being hatched in a thousand secret rooms under the words "defense," "security," "intelligence," "war on drugs."

Prisoners are going hungry to assert their human rights. They are also reminding us of what we all stand to lose.

By Alessandro Camon

Alessandro Camon is a screenwriter and film producer based in Los Angeles.

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Barack Obama George Orwell George W. Bush Guantanamo Hunger Strike Karl Rove Prison