Alice Paul told a journalist in 1917 that “I’ve been forcibly fed, and I feel that every atom of American self-respect within me has been outraged.” Last week, in a piece titled “Gitmo is Killing Me,” Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel wrote in the New York Times of his own experience of force feeding that he “would not wish this cruel punishment on anyone.” Moqbel and other prisoners at the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba started a hunger strike earlier in April that now involves nearly half the men. Sixteen are presently being force fed.
The HBO movie about Alice Paul’s leadership of the American suffrage movement, Iron Jawed Angels, graphically depicted what force feeding looks like. Paul, played by Hilary Swank, is forcibly restrained and has a tube shoved down her throat to allow the guards to pour a mix of milk and raw eggs into her as she wretches and struggles. It’s difficult to watch. No doubt this explains why almost every other movie that incorporates force feeding into its plot is a horror film. Doctor Irene Martinez, herself a victim of imprisonment and torture in Argentina, wrote in an essay on Iron Jawed Angels in the book The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies that the force feeding of prisoners meets the definition of torture according to many international protocols governing medical ethics. In Angels, this act of suffering makes Paul’s heroism transcend the narrow mindedness of those who oppose her cause. When the press reveals the abuse that Paul and her fellows received, the public outcry shames the administration of President Woodrow Wilson into freeing the women and eventually supporting the 19th Amendment.
Or so the movie would have it. As Olga Khazan of The Atlantic points out in “Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won’t Work,” the success of women’s suffrage movements in the United States and Britain did not result primarily from the use of hunger striking by a small group of activists. Suffrage came about because of mass mobilizations of women and men for decades. It’s also worth noting here that Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the other suffragists sent to the Occoquan workhouse to serve sixty-day sentences for trespassing (by picketing in front of the White House during war time) didn’t go on a hunger strike to directly advocate for women getting the vote. They did so to make clear that they believed themselves to be political prisoners and to protest the ill treatment to which they were subjected.
Hunger strikes are exceptionally useful for making the jailers look bad. Khazan finds that in recent times, such strikes in prisons have been highly effective—at least in cases where the public found the strikers sympathetic. She concludes however that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t succeed because Americans just don’t care and notes, in an update to her piece, that polls showing precisely such attitudes influenced the Obama administration’s decision to renege on the campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo. Indeed, the very reason that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo have gone on a hunger strike is that the United States cleared eighty-six of them for release and yet continues to imprison them. Moqbel, after eleven years in prison, was cleared in January but since the U.S. does not want to send any former prisoners back to Yemen, his country of origin, he remains a prisoner. In his New York Times op-ed he writes of this situation, “I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.”
In Salon, Falguni Sheth questions Khazan’s conclusion that the Guantanamo hunger strikers are unsympathetic. The suggestion that they cannot gain sympathy through their actions rests on the assumption that they can only be unsympathetic. Sheth argues that those who would keep them there without charges, a trial, or any evidence of guilt are not likely to be moved by their hunger strike, but those who believe in the rule of law are likely to be troubled indeed. She continues that even where prisoners are not, in themselves, sympathetic figures, their action as hunger strikers often is. They attempt to harm only themselves. When force fed, their dehumanized condition is more fully revealed. The question, finally, is whether as Paul put it, Americans’ atoms of self-respect will be outraged.
UPDATE (April 30, 2013): The hunger strike at Guantanamo has continued to expand and has now pushed President Obama to renew his commitment to resolving the situation. He stated, “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried,” he said, “that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”