Unreported in the mainstream press is the dramatic long-term hunger strike by a group of Americans in solidarity with the hunger strikers in Guantanamo prison. The fasters include CODEPINK cofounder Diane Wilson (on a water-only fast since May 1), Veterans for Peace member Brian Wilson (May 12), and former president of Veterans for Peace, Elliott Adams. Below is an interview with Elliott Adams, who began his hunger strike on May 17.
Medea Benjamin: Why did you decide to take this dramatic action, which entails such personal sacrifice?
Elliott Adams: What is happening in Guantanamo is despicable. Just think about it: 86 prisoners are cleared by the government — the Department of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security over a year ago, and they’re still being held. Many of them have been held for over 11 years!
Now the prisoners’ access to their attorneys has also been reduced. They have a new rule that to meet with their attorneys, they have to go through a draconian search process, which includes people touching their genitals and anus, violating their religion.
The prisoners in Guantanamo are desperate. They see no sign that they will ever get out of that place. They’ve tried the legal route but now realize that even though the government has decided not to charge them and admits that they’re not a threat to US national security, they’re still going to be held. The only way they can see to get out is to starve themselves. That is a level of desperation that Americans don’t understand. And instead of releasing them or giving them trials, the government is brutally force-feeding them.
It’s disgusting. It’s a violation of our moral and religious principles, international law, national law; it’s a violation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the things that are supposed to define America. It goes against the very principles I thought the American flag stood for when I was a young man.
I just can’t sit and enjoy my life when my country is doing such terrible things to these people. It’s up to us to force our government to get them out of there.
MB: How are you feeling physically? Have you lost a lot of weight?
EA: I’m losing 1-1.5 pounds every day. I got rid of excess fat, and I can physically see my muscles deteriorating. I feel tired at times.
As soon as you start a long-term fast, your electrolytes get out of balance; you face potential heart problems. Once you start digesting the body a little bit, you immediately face potential kidney damage. The reduced diet may lead to nerve damage. It can be a very high-risk thing to be doing. There is also the aspect that it is uncomfortable not to eat.
But these are tiny things compared to what those men at Guantanamo are experiencing.
MB: Have you done any hunger strikes in the past?
EA: This is the first indefinite one I’ve done. The last one I had to stop after nine days due to health problems.
MB: How long are you planning to continue the hunger strike? What will convince you to start eating again?
EA: My hunger strike is open-ended. I don’t know when we’ll see significant motion but I need to see some real action, not just nice words.
MB: What has been the reaction of your family and friends?
EA: Most of the people who love me think it’s crazy; it’s wrong; it’s stupid. Fortunately, my wife is still putting up with me. She’s been very patient for many, many years.
MB: How do you feel about the fact that dozens of hunger strikers are being force-fed every day?
EA: It’s really simple: it’s torture. So says the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association, and anybody with a conscience. To force-feed a conscious person is torture.
MB: What do you think President Obama should be doing?
EA: He should start by invoking the national security waiver that allows him to release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release. He needs to stop talking and take action.
It reminds me of when George McGovern ran for president in 1972. People said to him, “You’re in favor of getting out of Vietnam, but that’s a really complicated issue. How do you do that?” His answer was, “I’d try ships and planes.” It’s time we start getting people out—on ships and planes.
MB: Do you see similarities between the way prisoners in Guantanamo are treated and prisoners in the US are treated?
EA: Yes, absolutely. In both cases, we have situations that are immoral. Here in the US we’ve been holding prisoners in solitary confinement, 24 hours a day by, for decades! It’s as wrong as what’s happening at Guantanamo, just a different flavor of torture and abuse.
MB: Do you think military courts can provide Guantanamo prisoners with a fair trial?
EA: No, of course not—that’s why they created the military courts. In an extreme hierarchy like the military, you cannot have a fair trial. The judge, the prosecutor, the jury—everybody is subject to what they’re told. That’s the way it works. It’s like saying the Spanish Inquisition or Salem Witch Hunt held fair trials. The whole idea of a military trial is an oxymoron.
More importantly, our civilian court system works. We have certainly tried and handled in our court system people far worse than those at Guantanamo. We can handle it. We can give them a fair trial.
MB: Why do you think President Obama is not releasing those prisoners in Guantanamo who have been cleared for release?
EA: Somewhere in the hierarchy of the Democrat party, someone is thinking it will cost votes. They calculate that if they release the cleared prisoners, the Republicans will call them soft on terrorists. That is why we have to build grassroots support for releasing the prisoners. We have to make it a good political move for them. We have to force our government to do what’s right.
MB: What do you say to Americans who think the Guantanamo prisoners are “the worst of the worst” and should stay there?
EA: I don’t think those people know much about these prisoners. I think they ought to educate themselves, and then they’ll discover that it’s pure hogwash—these people are not the worst of the worst. I can guarantee you the US prisons hold people far worse than those at Guantanamo, people so fundamentally mean you wouldn’t even believe it. I’m not saying all of the people at Guantanamo are saints, but to say that they are the worst of the worst is a misunderstanding. In fact, our own government has determined that the majority of them should be cleared because they represent no threat to US society.
MB: How do you think the situation at Guantanamo is seen overseas, particularly in the Muslim world?
EA: People all over the world have lost respect for us because they see us violating the principles we are supposed to stand for and the principles of international law. In the eyes of the world, Guantanamo delegitimizes the government, the country, and even you and me because we’re paying for it. That’s why I think Guantanamo is a risk to our national security.
It’s also a violation of the American dream, the “grand experiment” that President Abraham Lincoln referred to. We can’t sit idly by while that experiment is ruined.