Friday, March 03, 2006

Spinning the Truth: Force-Feeding of Detainees in Guantanamo Bay

Over the past few days, there has been some controvery over the force-feeding of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Starting in August 2005, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest their confinement there - according to the New York Times, by the end of December there were 84 detainees involved. In reaction to the hunger strike, the US military has started force-feeding detainees, which has resulted in a drop from 84 hunger strikers at the end of December to just four now.

Several groups have protested the force-feeding of detainees. Some, including Amnesty International have even referred to it as "torture". A few days ago, Indymedia published some pictures of a protest in London by a group of doctors, who decided to demonstrate the technique of force-feeding an unwilling detainee by force-feeding one of the protesters in front of the US embassy. The technique they demonstrate is particularly brutal, showing the detainee being pinned down onto the hard asphalt while a tube is shoved up his nose.

Now, as I've written before, I'm no fan of the Guantanamo Bay facility, but let's get real here. Being force-fed may be unpleasant, but it is not torture.

The technique used for force-feeding prisoners is not unlike that used to feed comatose patients in hospital. A tube is inserted into the nose, and it goes through the sinuses, back around into the throat, and down into the stomach. Liquid food (with a similar consistency to a milkshake) is injected with a large syringe through the tube and into the stomach.

And, while hospital patients with feeding tubes are usually unconscious, there are times where a similar technique is used while the patient is conscious. A few years ago, I had a test called esophageal manometry done on me, where a tube, thicker than that used for force-feeding, was inserted through my nostril, into my nose, and down into my stomach. I remember gagging on the tube as it was inserted, and how the test was extremely unpleasant and something I would not want to repeat. But, it was not painful, and I certainly would not consider it torture.

In fact, the only real difference between the test I underwent and force-feeding in Guantanamo Bay is that I was a willing recipient. To assist with this process (and prevent the type of brutal situation the protesters above illustrate) the US military have reportedly employed special "Emergency Restraint Chairs" (shown below) for force-feeding. These chairs are made by a company called E.R.T., Inc., who describe the chair as "like a padded cell on wheels", designed to restrain a combative or self-destructive prisoner without injuring him/her and without impairing normal breathing.

While these chairs may be uncomfortable, the fact is, they are better than trying to hold down a prisoner by force (as in the protest photos above), and they are less likely to allow the prisoner to be injured in the process.

Keep in mind, a hunger strike is a very slow form of suicide. The prisoner gradually wastes away and eventually gets sick, and if the self-imposed starvation is allowed to continue, will eventually develop complications and die a slow and painful death. If administering food (by force if necessary) will prevent this horrible death from starvation, is this not a more humane action than allowing the prisoner to starve himself?

Let's not spin the truth here: force feeding may be unpleasant, but it is certainly not torture. In fact, one could easily argue that starving oneself to death is a form of torture, and that force-feeding is actually stopping this self-inflicted torture on the part of the prisoners.

Don't get me wrong - I do not like Guantanamo Bay. But, if you're going to hold prisoners there, do it right, and if some of the prisoners are trying to commit suicide through starvation, it is a fundamental and moral duty of those guarding them to intervene and prevent them from doing so. And, if that means force-feeding them, than so be it.