We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hunger is a Fearful Thing

Hunger is a fearful thing. It strips away the many layers of the individual ego and the communal reality. Hunger swells with unknowing and a sense of one's finite frailty. As I write this, I am mindful of many types of hunger - some more insidious and egregious than others. The hunger of the world's 3 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day is an affront to God; their hunger is one that we bear some responsibility for. I recall the hunger of millions of men, women, and children in America: the land of plenty. The faces of the poor that fill soup lines and food pantries grow each day. How is it more and more go hungry as we waste more and more food. Close to 50%, according to a University of Arizona report, of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. The waste brings me shame and the humble attempt to practice the simple work of feeding the hungry does little to comfort my despair - as if I, the fed, had the right to despair. I am mindful of my hunger, having gone 12 days without solid food. With a weakness that rests down deep in the bones, my core, I teeter on the edge of an other-worldly consciousness. It is hard to convince myself even to drink water. In my hunger, a loneliness emerges, even in the midst of a like-minded, committed community of fellow fasters.

Perhaps it is only in hunger we truly learn to appreciate the magnificence of creation's sustenance for us. Food is truly a gift - the earth's fertility produces what we cannot. Another act of the incarnation. For God so loved the world - creation, redemption, and sustentation. Is our fast, then, a shunning of the holy gift of life? By denying ourselves food do we deny ourselves God? The overwhelming abundance of the incarnation - the whole paschal mystery of a single life, a seed, the entire universe - is captured in a grain of wheat. To fast is to hope, that some new grace may come from the dying we are trying to live. And so I turn to another type of hunger - one that stirs the imagination, breaks the heart, compels one to action: the self-imposed hunger.

Of the 198 men remaining at Guantánamo, there are close to fifty people on a hunger strike protesting their indefinite incarceration. At any given time, we are told, about 20 of those men are on a critical list to be forced-fed through the nose. Imagine for a moment, what it must be like to be force-fed. The man being force fed is strapped to a chair. Twice a day, a tube the size of a pinky is shoved up the nose, through the esophagus, into the stomach and Ensure is pumped. According to court documents reviewed by the Associated Press in October 2008, Guantánamo guards use pepper spray, shackles and brute force to drag Ahmed Zaid Zuhair to a restraint chair for his twice-daily dose of a liquid nutrition mix force-fed through his nose. Without anaesthetic or sedative, Zuhair was restrained by two soldiers, one holding his chin while the other pulled him back by his hair, and a medical staff member violently forced the tube in his nose and down his dry throat. Liquid food and nutrients were then forced into his body, against his will and without his consent. Yousef al-Shehri said this of his force-feeding during his the first hunger strike in 2005: "When I vomited up blood, the soldiers mocked and cursed me, and taunted me with statements like “look what your religion has brought you.” Even their protest is taken away from them. Some of the hunger strikers have been refusing to eat for five years. Their bodies are decimated, kept alive only by a government prerogative and a nutritional drink. "Medical ethics" says lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, "tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death.”

Scott Horton notes on the illegality and continuation of the force-feeding: "The techniques do not comply with the international standards for actual force-feeding, established in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration of 1991. Instead they have a darker and more distressing progeny. From the use of restraint chairs down to the specific brand of commercial diet supplement used by the doctors, the force-feeding techniques now in use at Guantánamo replicate the methods used by the CIA at black sites under Bush. At the black sites, those methods were not part of any medical regime. Instead, they were a part of a carefully designed torture regime, the very same regime that Obama claims to have abolished in his first executive order."

I cannot imagine such a magnitude of injustice perpetrated against me to refuse food to the point of death. When life becomes so miserable, that the conditions around me are so degrading, torturous and inhumane, that I choose to protest with the only freedom I have left - the freedom to choose to eat - humanity has ceased to be human. And so, as my own fast from food draws to an end, my heart grows in empathy for the men, using the only resistance they have left to protest - a literal giving of their lives. And it is with a mindful humility of the ineptitude of my own modest actions and the humiliation I bear that such men seek to starve themselves in the name of war for freedom that I recall the words of Isaiah: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" The hunger of the men in Guantánamo reveals to me the true brokenness of our human community - and the urgent need to feed the hungry, the imagination, the witness, the resistance, and our common humanity.

There are close to 200 men remaining in prison in Guantánamo. Most of them have been there between five and seven years. We know who they are and who they are not. Some of them, to be sure, are, what we like to call by their associations to the Taliban and al Qaeda, "terrorists." Certainly some have participated in violent, oppressive acts that have taken the life and harmed others in their own countries or those who occupy their homes. Nonetheless we have deemed them enemies and are comfortable with where they are. Their presence at GITMO is still shameful for American justice and is more likely, as some analysts suggests, doing more harm than good in ending terrorism. Whatever the case, each person should be tried in U.S. federal courts and proceed from there.

But it is the overwhelming majority of the remaining men that we should recoil in moral and physical disgust - the innocent and the indefinitely detained. Around 103 men have been cleared for release by the Obama Administration (some of these men are doubly cleared because the Bush people cleared them as well). The other 55 men who do not seem to be facing any sort of criminal charges rest in the great unknowing of vigilante justice. The Administration does not see them fit for federal prosecution, certainly because of spurious evidence elicited through torture, but argues they are too dangerous to release. Whatever the argument for continued imprisonment of either of these two groups of men, it lacks solid legal foundation, betrays Constitutional and international rights, and perhaps most disturbing of all, systematizes inhumane, arbitrary, and torturous treatment of human beings.

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