Preserving life at all costs is wrong, especially in Guantánamo

Leaving politics aside, debates surrounding the force-feedings in Guantánamo Bay highlight our reluctance to accept individuals’ right to die when living becomes intolerable.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes that even when everything was taken away from him in Auschwitz, he still had the freedom to choose how to respond to his circumstances.

The ability to call the shots on matters of one’s existence is what makes us human.  Human agency, as perverse as it sounds, includes the right to starve oneself.

In my twenties, when I mistakenly believed my calling was to become a therapist, I spent two days a week at a mental hospital in New York, running group psychotherapy sessions.  It wasn’t really therapy because patients, heavily medicated, were either permanently zoned out or asleep.

One patient, 20 or 21 years old, had schizophrenia and drug addiction.  He was tall and thin, with a boyish face and mop of curly yellow hair.  Like most patients, he was missing a few teeth.

When he was a child, his father stabbed his mother, younger brother and him.  They died, but he survived and grew up on welfare.  He had large scars on his belly from that night, which he showed to fellow patients (and to me, too).  Once I heard him fighting with someone in the bathroom, cursing and wailing.  When he opened the door, he was alone.

Whenever he became somewhat cognizant, the hospital discharged him.  He then went back to living on the streets, immediately falling back on drugs.  Periodically (and unsuccessfully), he overdosed to kill himself.  Cops would pick him up and bring him back.  He would then spend several days throwing up, before turning up on the corridors in barefoot, wearing hospital pajamas and locked in his hallucinations.  Eventually he’d be discharged again.

I had secretly wished that he would overdose properly to put an end to his agony.  He must have been aware of his struggles when his head was clear, but I never believed he would get better.  The system had condemned him to a life of zombie-like existence.

Merriam Webster defines self-determination as “free choice of one’s own acts or states without external compulsion.”  The bedrock of human rights and modern civilization, this concept stipulates that individuals have free will and are free to choose how to live their life.

While the choices we make in life are based on deeply personal values — “What is life and what makes it worth living?” — dying, the most personal of all, doesn’t always fall within the purview of self-determination.

It’s ingrained in our cultural and ethical nervous system that life trumps death anytime, anywhere.  But it doesn’t.

Example: Patients have the right to refuse treatment, but when those with an untreatable illness decide to die because of excruciating pain or loss of autonomy that renders life meaningless, they have to make the difficult transition without the help of a physician who can provide humane assistance (unless they live in Oregon, Washington or Montana).

The obsession with sustaining life often overrides individual wishes and prolongs suffering.  It’s a desperate measure to perpetuate the status quo out of fear of personal guilt, potential lawsuits, religious obligations or political ramifications.

The situation in Guantánamo is not different when it comes to respecting the wishes of despairing individuals.

Politics will ultimately decide the fate of the inmates, but ethics lies at the heart of this matter: force-feeding a score of hunger striking terror suspects against their will infringes on their right to peacefully protest against their detention.

Supporters of force-feeding contend that prisoners are using hunger strikes as a means to blackmail officials to have their demands met or to die as martyrs, fueling future terrors.  Others argue that inmates are the responsibility of officials because of the stress of being incarcerated affects their judgment.

I’m not sure most of us understand what it means to go on starving oneself day after day.  Watch Hunger, a film chronicling Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981 and see how harrowing this option is.  The 100 or so inmates have resorted to hunger strikes because they prefer to die and leave Guantánamo rather than stay there and be alive.

Commentators have already said extremism would grow on the back of Guantánamo with or without force-feeding.

And based on news reports, it’s pretty clear the inmates’ ability to think for themselves is intact.  They have gone on hunger strikes and are refusing nourishment as competent adults because they believe it’s the only way out of their misery.  And I can’t blame them for not wanting to live like a zombie.

Free the inmates or let them be.  But stop shoving a feeding tube down their nostrils to keep them alive.

© Katrin Park and Ex Nemo, 2013. Unauthorized use or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.


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