THE authorities at Guantánamo Bay say that prisoners have a choice. They can eat or, if they refuse to, they will have a greased tube stuffed up their noses, down their throats and into their stomachs, through which they will be fed. This can cause gagging and bleeding in a compliant patient, and is a lot nastier when done against his will. It takes up to two hours, during which time an unco-operative prisoner must be restrained to stop him pulling out the tube. Lawyers for the 23 or so men who are being subjected to this treatment report that it is deliberately being done roughly, with unsterilised tubes that are too large: those claims are denied. But even if they are false, the business clearly violates an individual’s rights; according to the president of the American Medical Association, it also breaches the “core ethical values of the medical profession”.
Roughly 100 of the 166 detainees still in Guantánamo are now on hunger strike, and extra doctors were brought in this week to help with what the administration refuses to call force-feeding (see article). No matter what they have done, this is wrong. This newspaper has condemned Guantánamo as unjust, unwise and un-American for a decade. The spectre of prisoners denied either a fair trial or the possibility of release is Orwellian. Nothing has done more to sully America’s image in the modern world. They should be tried or set free, just as terrorist suspects are in every other civilised country.
Four years and three months ago, Barack Obama, in one of his first official acts as president, wrote an executive order to close the prison camp. This week he said Guantánamo “is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.” And yet it goes on. Some of the 166 have been there as long as 11 years, without ever even having been charged.
Most of the blame lies with Congress—with politicians from both parties. Mr Obama’s original plan to close the camp was scuppered by the Senate in 2009 when it voted, by 90 to six, not to let him use federal money to transfer the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo to a prison in Illinois for trial in a civilian court. Votes seldom get more bipartisan than that. In subsequent legislation Congress made it virtually impossible for detainees to be sent anywhere at all.
Mr Obama should have vetoed those bills, or exercised the power that he retained to override the restrictions they imposed. And he has made matters worse in one important way. After the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit by the “underpants bomber” on Christmas Day 2009, the Nigerian culprit claimed that he had been in contact with a Yemeni jihadist preacher. The Obama administration promptly halted all attempts to transfer prisoners back to Yemen—even those who are reckoned to have done nothing that could successfully be tried in court and who do not pose a significant security risk. The largest group among those still in Guantánamo are of Yemeni origin.
Mr Obama and Congress have thus ensured that even the 86 detainees whom the administration has slated for release are stuck. The remainder, whom the Americans reckon have cases to answer, cannot be tried in civilian court because Congress has blocked that route, and the administration has given up trying to change its mind. With the Republicans now in control of the House, the chances of a reversal on that score look unlikely. Some are supposedly being tried by Donald Rumsfeld’s “military tribunals” at Guantánamo itself: but that process is so ugly and has run into so many legal difficulties that it has more or less ground to a halt. Sending them abroad for trial would not work, in most cases, either: the evidence is generally too weak or too tainted by torture (thank you, Mr Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al) to try them anywhere.
The lesser evil
America is in a hole. The last response of the blowhards and cowards who have put it there is always: “So what would you do: set them free?” Our answer remains, yes. There is clearly a risk that some of them would then commit some act of violence—in Yemen, elsewhere in the Middle East or even in America itself. That risk can be lessened by surveillance. But even if another outrage were to happen, the evil of “Gitmo” has recruited far more people to terrorism than a mere 166. Mr Obama should think about America’s founding principles, take out his pen and end this stain on its history.