Why does the public care about some things but not others? Why does it care about a problem for a while and then stop, even if the matter remains unsolved? Why does it ignore an issue for years—maybe decades—then suddenly take an interest in it for no apparent reason? Why do some issues cycle in and out of favor on a schedule that follows no discernible pattern?
Why, for instance, is there suddenly so much chatter about the moral bankruptcy of the criminal justice system, but such yawning indifference to the continuing abuses of the post-9/11 era? Only a few years ago, it was just the opposite, even though the criminal justice system has been a train wreck for decades and places like Guantanamo are the same as they were when Obama took office, when most Americans wanted it closed.
Many scholars who study this sort of thing have concluded the public is simply fickle. Lacking firm convictions, it takes its cue from others, roaring in Pavlovian protest at whatever is presented to it as the outrage of the day. A few people might have a special interest in Benghazi, for instance, or Obamacare, the death penalty, or same-sex marriage, but most folks don’t really care unless someone they respect tells them they should.
The issues are not important in themselves, but only as part of much larger arguments about national direction. To those who oppose it, Obamacare is about freedom; to those who support it, same-sex marriage is about equality. At the mass level, public sentiment is merely something partisans drum up to advance a wider agenda or embarrass an enemy.
I have never been entirely satisfied with this explanation. It makes the public an inert lump of clay. There are no principles, only self-interest waiting to be manipulated by others.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I reflect on the current fate and possible demise of Guantanamo prisoner, Tariq Ba Odah. I do not know Tariq, and am certain I never will. But I am told by the United States government that in 2009, every federal agency with a stake in national security gathered to review everything that was known about Tariq, from every available source. After studying the record for months, these agencies concluded unanimously that he could be removed from Guantanamo, where he has been held since 2002.
This morning, like every day for the last eight-plus years, guards will come to Tariq’s cell, place him in handcuffs and leg irons, and bring him to medics. Perhaps as you read this, he will be strapped into a chair. A tube will be forced up his nose and down his throat, and liquid nutrients will be pumped into his stomach. A few minutes later, medics will remove the tube. Sometimes, this has caused Tariq to vomit and urinate on himself. Eventually, the guards will remove the restraints, replace the handcuffs and leg irons, and return him to his cell. Sometime this evening, perhaps as you leave work, they will do it again. Different guards, different medics, but the same procedure. Every day, twice a day, for the last eight years and five months.
Tariq now weighs 75 pounds. At least, so say his captors. That amounts to a bit more than half his normal body weight. Medical experts say he has no more weight to lose. Fat and carbohydrate stores have long since disappeared. His body is now drawing on essential protein reserves – essentially cannibalizing itself to survive, slowly consuming his organs. His skin sinks into his skeleton. Tariq says his vision is failing. He is precariously weak. He cannot walk confidently on his own power. His memory is fading. He is often confused, almost always exhausted, and constantly in pain.
And still he persists. He will not eat. He says he would sooner die than endure injustice without protest. Doctors say he needs urgent and sophisticated care, which he cannot get at America’s island prison. Without it, they measure his lifespan in weeks and months.
When the guards bring Tariq back to his cell, he is alone. Recently, Justice Kennedy wondered whether prolonged solitary confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment. But the United States says the Constitution does not apply at Guantanamo, and Tariq has been in solitary confinement for nearly seven years. From his cage, he cannot see the natural light and has almost no contact with other human beings apart from the guards and medics whose daily interventions sustain him on the edge of life.
When he stopped eating in 2007, the prison put him in solitary. But now it is no longer necessary; even if he could, Tariq lacks the strength to leave his cell on his own power. Tariq insists he does not want to die at Guantanamo. Like most of us, he wants very much to live, to see his home and throw his arms around his family. But that is not among his choices.
Some protest that Tariq has other choices, that he has it in his power to end his suffering. Simply as a medical matter, this is no longer true. His condition has grown so dire that he cannot process solid food. Even if he had the strength, eating could kill him. But if it were otherwise, why should he be made to endure life in a cell when he has been cleared by the government that imprisons him? Is liberty so cheap that he should trade it for a sandwich?
More pressingly, what sort of nation presents a cleared prisoner with this choice: You may starve yourself, and therefore die a slow, painful death of your own making, or you may eat, and therefore die an even slower death alone in a cage, on the schedule fixed by the government that holds you?
For now, it is evident that Guantanamo’s time has passed. Perhaps it will cycle back, perhaps not. A nation, like its prisoners, lives and dies with its choices.
Tariq Ba Odah is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The pleadings filed on his behalf are available here. CCR has sought his release so he can receive urgent medical care. The Obama Administration opposes it.