Notes on a hunger strike

You might say Habeas Corpus literally means - you have a right to keep your body. 

Last month, on April 14, Samir Naji al Hassan Moqbel had an article published in The New York Times. Titled “Gitmo Is Killing Me”, the article is a translation of a telephone conversation he had with his lawyers. As al-Hassan Moqbel explains, he has been forcibly held at the United States Guantanamo detention center for over 11 years. He has been on a hunger strike since February 10, 2013, among over a hundred others.

A hunger strike, in the context of the prison at Guantanamo, can be described as an action of last resort, with everything to gain because, basically, one is constrained by circumstances where there is nothing left to lose - life itself reduced to a bare minimum, the body reduced to “bare life”, as Giorgio Agamben would say.

In this “zone between life and death” (Agamben), the body becomes a site for the administration of basic needs. Needs themselves - moral and physical nourishment - come to be defined and administered in acutely minimalist terms, as that which in the main prolong biological life. 

In circumstances of political detention, a hunger strike can be thought of as a challenge to the reduction of needs to the maintenance of biological life. For physical needs are never satisfied purely for biological necessity, but socially situated through an exchange of power and desire, as well as relations of dependency. Most parents would notice that no matter how hungry their child is, and no matter how the food offering is to their child’s liking, their toddler is more than likely to find one reason or another to play up and resist. We could say that they refuse to be spoon-fed, effectively challenging the terms of their dependency on another to determine what and when they eat.

Lacanian psychoanalytic theory has much to say on what its practitioners would call the division of need by demand, with desire as a remainder. But I think we could also speak, perhaps not so equally, about dependency as a form of social exchange, constantly struggled over in social, political, and personal relationships.

Complicating dependency as an extreme, ‘last resort’ type of political protest against being reduced to bare life, hunger strikes transform need into demand. The body and its relation to hunger is transformed from biological necessity to a site of political demand, having moral and physical consequences. Indeed, it may seem peculiar, perhaps even contradictory, that in a severe circumstance of political detention, one’s body under constant surveillance and various practices of deprivation and degradation, that one voluntarily decides to further intensify the severity of one’s incarceration, intensifying life as a living death, and denying one’s-self sustenance.

In his telephone interview al-Hassan Moqbel says: “And there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made”. This choice is above all about the possibility of having some control over personal destiny, of situating the body as a site of struggle over dependency, even if the outcome is death. And yet it is also about a demand that a person’s life and death be deemed worthy of moral consideration.

Hunger strikes are of course not simply voluntary, as the circumstances in which they are undertaken are mostly extremely involuntary. Moreover, in the detention center at Guantanamo hunger strikes involve the punishment of force feeding, which the United Nations Human Rights Commission considers a practice of torture.

This is how al-Hassan Moqbel describes his experience of being force fed:

“Last month, on March 15, I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray”.

He goes on to further describe how a feeding tube is inserted into his nose and through to his stomach. What becomes significant for his sense of dignity amidst the pain and degradation is the seemingly, relatively minor incidence of being prevented from changing his clothes after a liquid food spill, when “the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity”.

In many of the media photos of the Guantanamo prison a placard is pictured on a wire fence. It reads “Camp Delta 7. Maximum Security”, with an underlying caption having some moral fervor: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”. It would of course be all too easy to note the ambiguity, hypocrisy, almost comic-strip aspect of the caption, more productive to consider how this caption is embedded in certain imaginaries by which public and political cultures in the United States interpret past and present events.

But for my purposes here it is more compelling to observe how the very demand of al-Hassan Moqbel’s hunger strike compels a violent reaction that strives to return his body to a register of biological necessity.

Apparently, the camp motto at Guantanamo is “safe, humane, legal and transparent”, a motto that would please the strictures of human rights advocacy. And yet we should read the motto quite literally, and recognize that the treatment of the prisoners is humane, undertaken by humans within a highly rationalized and bureaucratically administered framework of actions and decision making, justified by a moral argument.

This recognition - and not propositions suggesting “inhumane” or “animal” treatment - gives us a better view of what is at stake when al-Hassan Moqbel transforms his body into a site of demand, a site for a political struggle over the manifold terms (moral, legal, political, ethical) of dependency, here concentrated in this severe zone between life and death.

Habeas Corpus is a term that stipulates the right to be legally charged and tried in a court of law, or else the right to be released from detention if there is no charge or trial. It derives from the Latin, and literally means “may you have the body”. The ethical sense of the term consists of the second-person register of habere, you have, thou has, you keep. Corpus denotes the singularity of body. So one could say: you have a right to keep your body.

Like most others detained in Guantanamo, al-Hassan Moqbel has neither been charged nor tried, a circumstance that defines the atemporal sense he has of “no end in sight”. Towards trying to at least imagine some sort of end, he presents his body as a site over which he can make some sort of decision, however minimal, to somehow gain a response that would not leave the significant difference of life and death physically and morally indistinguishable.

About the author

Saadi Nikro has Australian and Lebanese backgrounds, and is currently a Research Fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. His book, The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon, came out in October 2012, with Cambridge Scholars Publishing.