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What the Guantanamo Hunger Strikers Achieved

Though so little in American politics has changed, the debate about Guantanamo feels -- and genuinely seems -- renewed.
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On July 24, Congress held its first hearing on Guantanamo since 2009. Remarkably, little has changed in the past four years. Guantanamo, of course, remains open, and the politics surrounding the facility remain divisive. Not even the Democrats' arguments for closing the facility have changed much, although members of the party now repeatedly note that maintaining Guantanamo is expensive, costing the U.S. over $2 million per prisoner per year.

Though so little in American politics has changed, the debate about Guantanamo feels -- and genuinely seems -- renewed. Two months ago, President Obama addressed Guantanamo and the force feeding of hunger strikers there in a high-profile, national security speech. Between that speech and this week's hearing, federal courts have issued a spate of rulings on Guantanamo, one of which sharply criticized the force feeding of detainees as "a painful, humiliating, and degrading process." The Pentagon has also gotten involved, recently announcing that it will assess whether seventy-one detainees at the facility remain threats to the U.S.

This renewed concern for Guantanamo is less about developments in national politics than it is about local politics at the facility -- specifically, those between the seventy or so detainees on hunger strike and the military doctors who force feed many of them. The detainees, by risking their health and lives, confronted the U.S. military with two bad choices: allow detainees to slowly starve, perhaps to death, or forcibly feed them. The military chose to defer one scandal -- that of additional detainees dying while in U.S. custody at Guantanamo -- by opting for another. This was made clear during Wednesday's hearing. Democrats Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein both sharply criticized the forced feeding of detainees. Leahy likened the practice to those of authoritarian states; Feinstein described it as a violation of international norms and medical ethics.

But the impact of the detainees' hunger strikes is broader, bringing into stark relief the absurdity of the detainees' situation at the facility. By forcibly feeding detainees to prevent them from starving to death, the U.S. risks flaunting international law and medical ethics in order to sustain the lives of men who may reside at Guantanamo until some other death overtakes them. The implication of this has not yet been recognized. If detainees remain on hunger strike and the U.S. finds no alternative to Guantanamo, the spring and summer of 2013 may mark the moment when the nation committed itself not simply to indefinite detention, but to the indefinite forced feeding of detainees.

The hunger strikers have also caused the suffering and anguish of detainees in U.S. custody to reverberate in Congress. During Wednesday's hearing, Senator Feinstein referred to the hopelessness of the detainees at Guantanamo. Although she did not dwell on that hopelessness, the admission of it signaled that, amongst some members of Congress, the Guantanamo detainees are no longer just "the worst of the worst," contemptible men whose mistreatment is justified by the threat that they represent. Two of the Committee's witnesses, in turn, spoke at length about the plight of those at Guantanamo. Lieutenant Joshua Fryday, one of the military lawyers appointed to defend detainees at Guantanamo, described how the Afghani man that he represents spent his twenties at the detention facility as his infant son aged. Elisa Massimino, the President and CEO of Human Rights First, read from letters written by family members of those held at Guantanamo. Rarely has the humanity of detainees in U.S. custody been so clearly and poignantly recognized in U.S. politics.

Not everyone shares this view of those held at Guantanamo. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and the ranking member of the subcommittee, refused to distinguish amongst the detainees, all of whom, it seemed, were terrorists or potential terrorists. And the recognition of the humanity of others is not identical to acting on that recognition. This hearing may disappear into obscurity, impacting neither policy nor practice. Still, what we witnessed on Wednesday was something of a breakthrough. All three branches of the federal government are now engaging with Guantanamo. All recognize, albeit in precarious and incomplete ways, the dignity and humanity of the detainees at the facility. This is what the hunger strikers achieved. Soon, perhaps, there will be achievements to credit to the President and Congress: the long-awaited closure of Guantanamo, freedom for detainees who pose no threat to the U.S., and trials for those who do.