Hunger Strikes and Their Audience

Yesterday brought news that a hunger strike by Gitmo prisoners had gained new participants, this time protesting isolation in the newly completed Unit 6. At the same time, the news stories quoted camp officials as saying that the surge in hunger strikers waned after reporters left and the new strikers were faced with the prospect of forced feedings through nasal tubes. Here I'll briefly explore the question of what the use of a hunger strike says about the strikers' assessment of their audience.

In modern times, hunger strikes have been used most famously by American and British suffragists, by Gandhi, and by IRA prisoners. Hunger strikes were not a prominent tactic of the American civil rights movement, although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced by the broader strategy of non-violent protest used by Gandhi and others. That American and British authorities have so often been the target of hunger strikes and so-called passive resistance may say something about perceptions of public opinion and democracy in these two countries. Hunger strikers judge: 1) that the public will infer that the strikers must have serious grievances if they are willing to risk death or painful involuntary feedings to have them redressed; 2) that the public will, upon learning of the hunger strike, demand that authorities respond to strikers' grievances; and 3) that the authorities will be responsive to this demand. Indeed, it is tempting to see in the hunger strikers' logic a kind of homage to the presumed humanity of those whose policies they protest.

Tempting but maybe wrong. Gandhi, for example, famously wrote to Hitler (twice) to urge him to abandon war and said that his method of non-violent resistance was the right tool for Jews, Czechs and others to use to "oppose" Nazism. So if we count Gandhi's use of ahimsa/satyagraha against the British as a compliment to British decency, we have to discount the compliment because of Gandhi's naivete about its universal appeal. Likewise, even today we see hunger strikes against the regimes in China and Iran, neither of which is especially well known for its gentility. No doubt such strikes are partly meant to affect public opinion in the West, and thereby to apply indirect pressure, but that doesn't alter the bottom line: A hunger strike against a particular regime is no proof of the basic decency of that regime.