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One Conscientious Objector at Gitmo Is Great — But It's Not Enough

A nurse at the Guantanamo Bay prison is refusing to force feed prisoners. His lead needs to be followed by other medical personnel there.
Photo by Brian Godette

The international medical community has long maintained an ethical line against force-feeding. As infectious disease specialist Kent Sepkowitz has written, "Without question, it is the most painful procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients… The procedure is, in a word, barbaric."

Yet in Guantanamo Bay, it is daily procedure for a reported 18 hunger striking detainees. Every day medical professionals watch strapped-down inmates gasp, gag, and choke with streaming eyes as rubber tubes are snaked through sensitive nasal passages into empty stomachs. Despite urging from institutions including the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, Gitmo prison medical staff continue to participate, all of them just following orders. All but one.


One nurse, it was revealed this week via human rights group Reprieve, has refused to participate in the force-feedings. The nurse, who has not been named, has been assigned other duties at the prison camp. As the first and only medical professional to refuse to force-feed, specifically citing ethical grounds, he is to be commended.

As Reprieve attorney Cori Crider told the Guardian, "This guy is basically a hero, and he should be permitted to give care to detainees that is ethically appropriate."

Crider is right to praise the nurse as a "hero." There's a reason that institutional lines don't get crossed more often — there is a risk in crossing them. If rules were truly made to be broken, they wouldn't be rules. Rules and orders can be resisted, but they persist with the assumption that they are there to be followed.

By asking for his wallet back, a Gitmo detainee may have revealed US war crimes. Read more here.

Herein lies the power and the problem of the hero. A hero is necessarily an exception — it's inherent in the concept. So while the Gitmo nurse deserves praise as a hero, for the brutalized hunger strikers, this is no time for heroes. Or it is no time, at least, for heroes forced to stand alone. All the medical professionals at the camp should follow suit. It's the least that should be done in a prison camp that shouldn't exist at all.

"All that is necessary for a triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," goes the phrase attributed to Edmund Burke, though it's not proven he ever said those precise words. The 18th century statesman and political philosopher did, however, write something along similar lines: "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle," he noted in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.


The two phrases — the popular and the precise — transmit the same general proposition. But the latter emphasizes something crucially lacking in the former. "The good must associate," it stresses, "in a struggle." The more famous saying, meanwhile, seems to put the onus on good men as individuals to resist inaction.

Guantanamo now calls hunger strikes 'longterm non-religious fasts.' Read more here.

The resisting nurse cannot be faulted for inaction. But one good man here is not enough. As a spokesperson for the military southern command that oversees Gitmo said, the nurse's protest is "being handled administratively." This one ethical act of refusal can be absorbed by military management, and the torturous practices at Gitmo can continue unabated, even while legal challenges mount and international censure has been issued.

It is not enough, after all, that people act for good. In the struggle against the horrors of Gitmo, ethical actors must, as Burke urged, "associate" such that there's no room nor need for heroes at all.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Photovia Wikimedia Commons