If It Was Wrong to Force-Feed Terri Schiavo, Why Is It Right to Force-Feed Gitmo Detainees?


Back when he was running for President, Barack Obama said his biggest mistake in the Senate was in not voting against the March 2005 unanimous consent motion to intervene in the Terri Schiavo dispute.

And yet the same man is ultimately responsible for the 11 Gitmo detainees who are being force-fed to prevent them from starving themselves to death.

To be sure, Obama’s regret about not speaking up against Terri Schiavo’s force-feeding is not precisely parallel to that of Samir Haji al Hasan Moqbel and others.

Obama described his objection to Congress’ intervention in the Schiavo matter in constitutional terms, presumably objecting to the Congressional interjection into a state legal matter. Unlike Congress and Schiavo, as President, Obama has clear responsibility for those at Gitmo.

Moreover, Schiavo was brain dead. Withdrawing her feeding tube amounted to her husband’s fully cognizant decision to fulfill her wishes not to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Whereas the Gitmo hunger strikers are (aside from the impact of 11 years of indefinite detention and forced feeding, which is significant) largely physically and mentally healthy. The Gitmo hunger strikers are choosing for themselves to stop taking nourishment — or at least trying to.

There’s also this difference: the forced-feeding of Gitmo detainees involves a great deal more physical coercion than the feeding tube Terri Schiavo had.

A team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray.

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.

All those significant differences aside, though, here’s a question I kept asking myself, as I thought about this: how are men who’ve been cleared for release but nevertheless indefinitely detained — so far at least three years beyond the time they were cleared, and for a number of them, far longer — all that different from being in a legal vegetative state (particularly now that the government has put them back in solitary detention)? I know these men, in theory, retain all their human cognitive selves, but we’ll only let them use it to occupy an apparently indefinite, unnecessary detention, not to truly live.

We’re fine with Terri Schiavo and her husband choosing to end her life because she was, according to her husband’s understanding of her beliefs, not fully living in any case. I don’t know the answer, honestly, but how is that different than the life of indefinitely detained innocent men? Without some concrete hope they’ll be able to resume their lives, and particularly now that they’ve been deprived of human contact, what has Gitmo made of their fully human lives?

Ultimately, it seems the underlying issue is the same: human dignity. “I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity,” Samir said.

Why is it Obama saw the legal justice of letting Schiavo die with dignity but he deprives these hunger strikers of their human dignity?

17 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    Last bit of the video from O “That was an example of inaction, and sometimes that can be as costly as action.”

    Yup. Just ask the folks at Gitmo.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Jim White: Honestly: you’re religious. Do you have an answer to this? I ask the question in good faith, but I’m wondering how indefinite detention accords the kind of human dignity that is at the core of most religions?

  3. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: I don’t even have to go to religion to get at the issue of indefinite detention, especially in solitary for previously cleared people. Laws say that can’t be done.

    The argument from the US that these folks are now at high risk of becoming terrorists, even if they weren’t when captured, is something that I view as natural consequences. The government should have given some thought to how people would react to being treated this way. Same goes for those who can’t be tried because all the evidence we have against them was obtained through torture. Natural consequences again. Anyone who was tortured or who was arrested based on evidence obtained under torture should be freed. Both law and religion would agree on that point, I think.

  4. JTMinIA says:

    I’m atheist, but can’t help but be exposed to various religions. A large majority of them seem to have, somewhere, their own version of the Golden Rule. Thus, to the extent that you would prefer not to be undeservedly indefinitely detained, don’t do it to others.

    If you were looking for a specific prohibition, I don’t recall coming across any “thou shalt not lock up scary people in Cuba for no good reason” rule or its equivalent. But it could have been on the third tablet, for example … you know, the one that Moses dropped on the way back down. tee hee

  5. masaccio says:

    Another analogy would be to people imprisoned inside unresponsive bodies, like patients with ALS. At some point they don’t want to go on living. Why should anyone be allowed to force them to live?

    If Obama and his ruthless advisors aren’t willing to allow these people to live like normal humans, surely they should be allowed to choose death on their own schedule.

  6. rg says:

    @masaccio: You’d think so, but remember the guideline for proper conduct that says: ” If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong”. Keeping detainees alive keeps away the ICRC-wait.

  7. JTMinIA says:

    This is probably a issue better left to someone like bmaz, but my poking around suggests that the most relevant SCOTUS decision is Harper vs the State of Washington in which it was determined that prisoners can be forced to accept medical treatment.

  8. Peterr says:

    how are men who’ve been cleared for release but nevertheless indefinitely detained . . .

    When you start with a logical inconsistency, anything that follows is bound to be problematic.

    If I’m out fishing, and I’ve got thirty fish in a live well in my boat and the daily limit is six, I’m going to be in big trouble if Fish & Game comes by to see how I’m doing.

    F&G: “You know you’re way over the limit of fish you can keep.”
    Me: “Oh, no sir. Twenty four of these fish have been cleared to be released.”
    F&G: “What?”
    Me: “I’m simply indefinitely detaining them.”
    F&G: “Riiiiiight. And I’m simply writing you up with a hefty fine, and I’ll take care of releasing them myself.”

    Of course, this scenario presumes legal oversight, which Congress seems intent on frustrating and which SCOTUS seems disinclined to exercise on their own.

  9. masaccio says:

    A prisoner is a person held by the state pursuant to some kind of judicial process. These people are, as Peterr points out, cleared for release and indefinitely detained. That is not a status allowed in the US, with the possible exception of people held because they are not mentally competent to be out in society. People properly committed for mental disabilities are not competent to make decisions for themselves.

  10. GKJames says:

    Glad you raised this. For me, there’s the enduring mystery of what our people get out of this. We force-feed the prisoners because, why, exactly? So that the low-level knuckleheads running Guantanamo can exercise dominion and control over someone, anyone, in order to confirm to the helpless that there is no hope? To keep them alive so that we can keep them in perpetuity? (Imagine, in a mere 3 years, we’ll have TWO ex-presidents playing golf while the people they’ve locked away continue to rot.) To accomplish what? A country of 320 million people who can talk themselves into any number of execrable, murderous, and — of course — self-defeating adventures is stumped by what to do with these ADMITTED innocents? The perversion of every moral, ethical, and legal standard at work here boggles the mind.

  11. lefty665 says:

    Interesting argument, but seems to distract from the overarching issue. We are holding innocent people at Gitmo. Everything else is downstream from that.

    Schiavo was already long brain dead, the question was whether to let the body go. The prisoners at Gitmo are sentient and personally choosing life ending actions as a supremely ethical protest of the illegality of their imprisonment. The difference is profound.

    We make suicide illegal, thus efforts to prevent it legitimate and required. Curiously, advance medical directives have the effect of giving everyone, except of course the prisoners at Gitmo, a get out of jail free card.

    The issue is war crimes and crimes against humanity. Until our nation decides to address those issues nothing else much matters. It starts with the guys at the top, the “Decider” and “Forward Looker”. A Chinese proverb puts it this way: “A fish rots from the head”.

    Eventually the rest of us become accessories if we acquiesce and do nothing. “Eventually” comes sooner for those who vote for the criminals after their crimes are known.

  12. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @GKJames: The “why” is likely to minimise further acts of retaliation. While these Yemenis are alive there is hope, but once they have starved to death their families and supporters in Yemen will in all likelihood be implacable. And just how significant a retaliation they will pursue is hard to estimate. The World Trade Centres was retaliation. Was the Boston Marathon Bombing retaliation? How much more will occur when there are 50 dead Yemenis in Guantanamo?

    It is likely safe to assume this force-feeding has been sanctioned at the highest levels. I’m sure the Guards would happily let them die. But the Obama Whitehouse would be in a real mess if that happened.

    Imagine the damage to O’s credibility if a number of major bombings took place and was justified by the bombers on the basis of 50 dead hunger strikers.

    NO WAY these guys will be allowed to die and especially not en mass as a result of a hunger strike based protest.

  13. GKJames says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Maybe. All the more reason, then, to release them unconditionally. In fact, if our national security apparatus weren’t comprised of myopic group thinkers wanking away in bunkers without sunlight, it would recommend that they be given permanent residence in the US and a shot at a new life. It’d be the least we could do for people whom we knowingly deprived of a decade of liberty.

  14. lefty665 says:

    @JTMinIA: Dunno that there is one. If you’ve looked and not found one I’ll take that as pretty good evidence. My post would have been better without that paragraph.

    You inspired me to poke around a little. The Google (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_legislation) talks about state laws, and that in some states (like mine) it comes to us as a common law crime. Maybe it was on the back of that 3rd tab?:)

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