As a U.S. citizen and as a Christian, when the prisoners in Guantánamo began their first hunger strike this summer, I was forced to think more seriously about how to say no to torture and yes to humanity. I had to think about the depth of powerlessness and despair as well as the intensity of will and defiance that goes into the decision to starve oneself. It is an act against biology. But refusing to eat is the prisoners’ only way of drawing attention to their predicament. They have no other tools except deepening their own suffering.
Jesus commands that we visit the prisoner and comfort the afflicted, and reminds us that what you do to the least among us, you do to me. I am marching as a person of faith trying to apply these mandates to an ever more violent world.
These fathers and brothers and sons now imprisoned a Guantánamo Bay have been swept up in indiscriminate raids, bound and blindfolded and shipped to an arid military base that is off the map of international law, a wasteland of injustice, a modern heart of darkness. Most of these men have done nothing wrong, nothing illegal. The Bush Administration has denied every fundamental right afforded by international law or American law to allow the inmates to defend themselves. It has even denied charging them with any crime beyond looking the part of the villain in Bush’s war on terrorism.
Why are these men now starving themselves and being savagely force-fed? They are crying out for the world to hear their suffering. We 25 Catholic Workers have committed ourselves to responding to their cry, reaching out human to human, across battle lines, borders, religion and ethnicity to simply say- we hear you and we are with you.
Our group includes professors, activists against the death penalty, people who run soup kitchens, a nun, a priest. We are all marching to Guantánamo with a simple request — a request coming from the mandate to Christians to perform the Works of Mercy — to visit the prisoners. We believe our own dignity and humanity are bound to the dignity and humanity of all people, and we want the prisoners to know that as Christians, we condemn their treatment. Pope John Paul II reminds us that practices such as the torture abuses perpetrated at Guantnamo are “‘incapable of being ordered’ to God” and therefore are “‘intrinsically evil.'” Would that our leaders who profess to be Christian hear his words.
But I am not marching just because Jesus commands us to perform works of mercy, or because the late Pope names torture as evil. On June 20, at a European Union event, President Bush invited me, and anyone else in the world community to inspect Guantánamo. Countering questions about torture and the United States’ commitment to human rights, President Bush said, “You’re welcome to go down there yourselves … and take a look at the conditions.”
But he was disingenuous. A few weeks ago a United Nations Panel of Experts declined a rigorously scripted “inspection” of Guantánamo, saying U.S. officials “did not accept the standard terms of reference for a credible, objective and fair assessment of the situation of the detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”
Just last month, in Panama on November 7, President Bush said emphatically, “We do not torture.” Is he telling the truth?
I am trying to see for myself, and it will be hard. The U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo is not easy to get to. It is no accident that the prisoners were put there, so ordinary Americans like me would not see them, or the inhuman and illegal treatment under which they suffer. So, while we walk for the works of mercy, we also walk to tell the story of how hard it is for Americans to get to the place where these men are being held, deliberately hidden from the American people and the world.
In my name and with my money, my government is committing immoral and illegal acts, mocking and ignoring international law — all at a place it is illegal for me even to visit. I march to say no. Will you join me? Visit WitnessTorture.org to learn how.
Frida Berrigan is a member of the National Board of the War Resisters League.