Obama’s brutal pragmatism

There are many Americans — and I expect they include Barack Obama — who drew a lesson from the Bush-Cheney era that there is no greater danger than comes from being wedded inflexibly to a rigid ideology. The fall of the neoconservatives coincided with the revival of “the reality-based community.”

When Obama entered office, he appeared to be taking a principled stand when he signed an executive order calling for Guantánamo to be shut down and banning the use of torture, but beneath the principle was a much stronger allegiance to a brutal pragmatism.

Since the detention of terrorist suspects had resulted in the creation of a legal and political quagmire, the solution — transparent in its application, even while never honestly articulated as such — has been to kill rather than capture suspects. The administration professes its desire to capture suspects “whenever possible” but it turns out that it’s virtually never possible.

As for how the detainees that Obama inherited get treated, in spite of his pledge to end torture, many are now in fact being tortured. Whereas Bush authorized torture to extract intelligence, Obama authorizes forced feeding of hunger-striking prisoners — which is widely viewed as brutal enough to be described as torture — because this president is less concerned about the prisoners’ treatment than the consequences of their deaths under his watch.

In a nutshell, this then is Obama’s pragmatic approach: better to kill rather than capture; but if already captured, better to torture than allow to die.

Joe Nocera writes: Nearly four months into a hunger strike that has now spread to some two-thirds of the detainees at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the question in this headline can no longer be avoided.

Fundamentally, hunger strikes are a form of speech for prisoners who have no other way to communicate their concerns. Hunger strikes give them the means to protest their confinement and to send a message about that confinement. During the “troubles” in Ireland, for instance, Irish Republican Army prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest their detention by the British — and some ended up being force-fed.

For decades, the international community, including the International Red Cross, the World Medical Association and the United Nations, have recognized the right of prisoners of sound mind to go on a hunger strike. Force-feeding has been labeled a violation on the ban of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The World Medical Association holds that it is unethical for a doctor to participate in force-feeding. Put simply, force-feeding violates international law.

Whatever triggered the hunger strike at Guantánamo — the detainees say that the military had begun searching their Korans and instituted a series of harsh new measures, which the military denies — the underlying issue is that the detainees are in despair of ever getting out. Many of them, including 56 men from Yemen, have been cleared to leave the prison by a committee of top national security officials. But thanks to a combination of Congressional actions taken during the past few years, and the timidity of President Obama, they remain in Guantánamo with no end in sight. The hunger strike has been their way of reminding the world of their continued imprisonment, and it has worked brilliantly. One wonders whether President Obama would have even mentioned Guantánamo in his big national security speech last week if not for the hunger strikers.

The military claims that it is force-feeding the detainees in order to keep them safe and alive. According to The Miami Herald, about one-third of the detainees on strike — at least 35 men, though possibly more — are being force-fed. A handful are in the hospital.

But not long ago, Al Jazeera got ahold of a 30-page document that detailed the standard operating procedures used by the military to force-feed a detainee. The document makes for gruesome reading: the detainee shackled to a special chair (which looks like the electric chair); the head restraints if he resists; the tube pushed painfully down his nose; the half-hour or so of ingestion of nutritional supplements; the transfer of the detainee to a “dry cell,” where, if he vomits, he is strapped back into the chair until the food is digested. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “Obama’s brutal pragmatism

  1. Norman

    I once underwent a procedure where the doctor shoved a tube down nose into my stomach so he could look at any ulcers and also take samples. My nose/throat/stomach hurt for a week just from that one time, not to mention the gagging when he inserted the tube. I can understand how that must feel on a daily basis, what the force feeding is doing. All those who favor such treatment, should also have to submit to the process, then perhaps they will come to their senses and stop the torture. They can start with the “O”.

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