Drones, Torture and Hunger Strikes


The relief with which President Barack Obama’s bland assurance that “this war, like all wars, must end” was hailed reveals something about the depths of collective fear and the unspoken misgivings attached to the war on terror.

Obama offered no time-line for the ending of the war, nor any benchmarks that would signify its cessation. At one level, the remark registered as platitudinous to the point of absurdity (everything has to end sometime…); at another, though few commentators seemed to notice, the statement was so qualified in advance as to put its fundamental meaning in question:

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organisations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”

The speech surely begs the question of just how the continuing “systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organisations” will differ from those efforts in effect during the war phase. Or will a new euphemism, “systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organisations” [SEDTO] join “collateral damage”, “extraordinary rendition”, “Enduring Freedom” and other dishonest coinages? It does seem to be in line with “what history advises” — and perhaps also “what our democracy demands”.

Even among those of us who want to respond hopefully to Obama’s promises, there is considerable doubt; not least where torture prisons, black sites and drone strikes are concerned.

One hundred detainees at Guantánamo are now into their fourth month of a hunger strike. Obama’s speech, with its renewed promise to close Guantánamo, could be read as a signal to these detainees, although, as Andy Worthington noted, few are in any condition to watch television.

In late April, displaying a sense of controlled panic at the prospect of mass deaths, the administration flew in 40 medical staff to administer a force-feeding program. The violence of this program cannot be overestimated. It adds yet another dimension of torture, violence and humiliation to that experienced by Guantanámo detainees. “Enteral feeding,” as the program is euphemistically called, entails a brutalising regime of medical intervention.

Hunger-striking detainees are often removed from their cells by the camp’s brutal Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) teams who have been documented as beating, kicking, smearing faeces on prisoners’ faces, urinating on them and keeping a prisoner’s head in the toilet bowel while repeatedly flushing it. Detainees are strapped into restraint chairs for up to two hours. A feeding tube is inserted through the nose down to the stomach. Detainees describe this this process as similar to a “razor blade [going]down through your nose and into your throat.”

The detainee is then placed in a so-called “dry cell” with no running water for up to an hour. He is under constant observation in case he vomits. If he does, the process is repeated. The force-feeding of hunger strikers is a violation of US medical ethics and international protocols on the treatment of hunger strikers.

What cannot be overlooked is that Guantanámo’s detainees are, through their hunger strike, exercising the sole avenue of protest left to them so as to make public their despair at the enormity of the injustice they are compelled to endure. Of the 166 detainees, 86 have been cleared for release and yet are still being indefinitely imprisoned.

Many of them are victims of the shameless bounty system practiced by the US, which offered $5000 for the capture of anyone suspected of al-Qaeda affiliation. The bounty program resulted in the capture and imprisonment of innocent men whose lives were traded in return for cash. Obama’s appointment of an envoy in the State Department to work towards the closure of Guantanámo suggests an approach that is desperately inadequate to the situation.

In his speech, Obama declared that U.S “victory against terrorism … will be measured”, amongst other civilian activities, “in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shore.” Shadowing the celebratory marking of these everyday practices is something that remains unspeakable: the US’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons.

The ICE prisons interlink the international war on terror with the domestic exercise of state violence and racialised punishment, housing largely Muslim inmates convicted on often questionable terrorism charges. The Communications Management Units of these prisons are also known as the “other Guantanámo’: “an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country.”

ICE prisons are largely off-limits to public scrutiny and constitute the domestic aspect of the US’s transnational network of secret prisons or black sites. With up to “half a million people detained each year,” immigration detainees constitute the “fastest growing prison population in the U.S.A.”, according to the International Detention Coalition. Given such ongoing practices, Obama’s speech must necessarily cast the signs of the war’s end in the indefinite future. Precisely what ICE detainees cannot do is take their kids to school.

In addition to responding to the continuing injustice of Guantanámo, Obama’s speech sought to address the growing unease caused by drone operations. Despite seeking to codify and set limits to the use of drones, the speech raised troubling possibilities about when killing is the preferred option.

“We trust,” Ryan Goodman and Sarah Knuckey write, “the President is not actually saying that when apprehending an individual is politically costly, that person might instead be killed.” The new regulations regarding “signature strikes” are also unclear. Under the dubious rubric of “signature strikes,” a person or group appearing to be suspect, and whose identities are not known, become legitimate targets of drones. In this way, communal gatherings of elders, wedding parties, funeral corteges and a school full of children, all have been struck by drones’ hellfire missiles.

Even if signature strikes may be used from now on only against specific, named targets, the new rules do not apply in "areas of active hostilities." This appears to allow continued use of drone strikes that could harm civilian communities in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the time of writing, a drone strike has marred the swearing in of the new parliament in Pakistan, which includes strong critics of the drone program. Instances such as this, under the guise of a "systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organisations” can only heighten radicalisation and produce precisely the sort of blowback that will fuel a never-ending war on terror.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.