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The rise of the active bystander: 20th anniversary of Guantánamo

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of Guantánamo I want to take on three intertwining topics: The Ideal Victim, the Bystander, and Force Feeding. 

The Ideal Victim

Out of criminology--the concept of the 'ideal victim' is someone for whom people feel comfortable advocating. "So for instance people feel comfortable advocating against the Muslim Ban" Dr. Maha Hilal explains, "but not when it comes to the offshore Muslim prison Guantanamo." In exploring the use of "the ideal victim" to substantiate institutionalized Islamophobia, Dr. Hilal  pivots a counter-narrative about Guantanamo Bay. 

What "the ideal victim" describes has important implications for advocates. Advocates, witnesses and active bystanders take actions whether or not they act up to intervene in situations. Thus,In part I believe because people of faith do not see Guantánamo--a circular logic we have to investigate. That blindness is a position reinforced by organized distraction but also whether norms of advocacy on the perceived innocence of a non-Christian--in fact should be understood more frankly as institutionalized Islamophobia. We employed the framing of Guantánamo as a Muslim prison since 2016 to the white-supremacy legitimated beginning with the Trump administration's Muslim Ban. 

The Bystander

Particularly revealing about what motivates us to speak up, when and why? social psychologists have observed that some suffering will rarely attract any advocacy. According to studies originating a May 1975 --"Bystanders devalue the experiences of victims because they must restore their faith in a 'Just World.' If the Victim cannot be compensated, this 'Just World' belief can be maintained only by viewing the victim as deserving his fate, either due to his personal behavior or because he was a 'bad person.'

 A total of 66 female psychology students viewed four victim situations. ...And in the fourth the victim was a volunteer with 'noble' characteristics. The volunteer and the person who participated for good reasons were both viewed more sympathetically on all ratings. Their shocks were believed to be more severe, their motives more worthwhile, and the experiment was seen as having value. 

The bystander will likely not intervene when someone seems to be an unwilling victim. The experimental findings show the bystander is less likely to be moved to sympathy by an unwillingly suffering.A 2020 Pew Research Center survey says that 41% of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment. As a Human Rights Commissioner I benefited and promoted free trainings facilitated by  Hollaback!  Which empowers active bystanders. And their Heartmob platform. An external program evaluation of HeartMob conducted in 2021 by Germain Solutions, 64% of users who have experienced harassment reported that the platform was very helpful or somewhat helpful in making them feel connected to, and supported by, others. 76% of bystanders found value in sending words of support.

Noble characteristics could include a religious affiliation, and the participation in various strenuous tactics of moral suasion. Compare two accounts of the noble sufferer.

A group from the Quaker Farm in Voluntown, Connecticut, practiced noncooperation in prison. Among them were veterans of a sleep-in of twenty pacifists at the Pentagon in the spring before. Now, led by Gary Rader, once a Green Beret, Erica Enzer, Irene Johnson, and Suzanne Moore, some of them refused to eat or drink and were fed intravenously. Several men at the D.C. jail would not wear prison clothing. Stripped of their own, naked, they were thrown in the Hole. There they lived in cells so small that not all could lie down at once to sleep. For a day they lay naked on the floor, for many days naked with blankets and mattress on the floor. For many days they did not eat nor drink water. Dehydration brought them near to madness.

In this sample, the noble characteristics: consider "Quaker Farm" a religious association and a specific activist community. These were "veterans" of other actions the spring before, "pacifists." They "practiced noncooperation" and some on hunger strike "were fed intravenously." Some lived in isolation deprived of sleep, naked, refusing to wear prison uniforms, still refusing to eat or drink, encountering dehydration, delirium--a voluntary series of actions giving credibility to their peaceful protest. For protesting the war in Vietnam they won the sympathy of other bystanders moved by their haunting victimhood, a noble "madness".

For comparison, as I turn back in time to the origins of protest against Guantánamo many of us were enlisted in the campaigns to elevate the wrongful treatment of men. Very few were prepared to accept in 2002 or 2003 any other narrative still propelled last July by Jeff Duncan (Rep. South Carolina) Kay Granger (Rep. Texas) Tony Gonzales (Rep. Texas) that these "worst of the worst." The Bush Administration would deny that the U.S. tortures even as we learned about Abu Gharib from released photos of U.S. soldiers inhumane, degrading treatment. In subsequent humanitarian efforts to highlight Guantánamo, activists never had first hand accounts  until the first UK citizens were released. A new guide to Guantánamo has published his memoir, tracing back to the earliest demonstrations by the men to advocate for themselves.  While I will also turn back to the torture, consider first the list of demands cited by Mansoor Adayfi in Do Not Forget Us Here (Hachette 2021). Note that while shrouded in secrecy, such nonviolent efforts reveal the true character of the men; in defiance of the mendacity of their accusers who sold them into bounty, the torture-induced confessions and subsequent interrogation by approved methods to validate extracted information, such prisoner organizing was an accomplishment we must now appreciate.


Brothers across the camp had different reasons for striking, but there was a core list of demands that hand't changed since the very beginning
1. Respect for our religion and to be able to practice according to our faith. This also included an end to interrogators and guards desecrating our Qur'ans.
2. Fair trials with real legal representation rather than more of these military hearings where they tried to get us to confess to the accusations they'd made against us.
3. Proper food fit for humans and clean water (The water was always dirty and tasted contaminated. The food was never enough, often old and inedible, or clearly not halal.)
4. Access to sunlight and to not be forced to go months in cells with no natural light.
5. To know why brothers sent to Camp V were treated so much worse than others, and why they were sent there for so long, in some cases for more than a year.
6. Basic human rights, including an end to regular and humiliating genital searches and access to real medical treatment. 
7. Contact with our families--to be able to write to them, receive letters, and have calls.
8. An end to General Miller's system of levels that determined a detainee's privilege, and that detainees be treated equally.
9. Oversight by a neutral body that could observe our treatment and situation and report publicly about the conditions at Guantánamo. 


While many graphic details have come to my attention over the years, the following description of forced feeding is comparably mild, yet triggers. The acts are degrading, inhumane, and absolutely torture. Please take care reading. 


"This is your breakfast," he said. "Enjoy!"
The corpsman opened the first can of Ensure into a bag connected to the tube. When the first one was done, he poured another, then another... He kept opening cans and pouring them in until my stomach [...]
"You're being punished for throwing up during your feeding," the nurse said.
Allah, oh Allah. Help me. They are going to kill me.
They brought me back to that chair four more times that day, and each time they threaded that fat tube into my nose, then poured an entire case of Ensure into my stomach.
"Eat! they screamed.
"Please," I cried. "You'll kill me!"
This made them laugh and they slapped me harder.
After the fifth feeding, they left me in the chair all night in just a pair of soiled shorts in my own mess. The next day, I was called five times again. Allah, oh Allah. I couldn't take it. I thought I would die.
Their intention was clear: they wouldn't stop feeding us like that until we ended the hunger strike.
I didn't want to let my brothers down. I heard brothers crying out, breaking, saying they would end their strike. I tried to resist. I did. I was strong and lasted two days, and then I heard Waddah call out to me from down the block.
"Brother," he called. "Please stop. They will kill you. It's okay. We are stopping the strike."
It was a relief to hear Waddah's words. I stopped my hunger strike that day. All of us stopped except for two brothers who were wounded during the force-feeding when the corpsmen pulled the tube from their throats. It was a relief to stop. And I hoped it wasn't for nothing.
The world knew what happened. Attorneys documented it and so did human rights organizations. But it didn't matter. The colonel had broken the hunger strike without a negotiation. I'm sure he got a nice star in his file for that.

The hunger strike was covered, but no numbers were released. President Bush continued to assert that Guantánamo was a place for 'the worst of the worst.' Witness Against Torture formed in 2005 in response, a vigil and pilgrimage to the naval base in Cuba. I was washing dishes in the Novitiate, when I heard a story on NPR about the protesters creative response to Bush's invitation to see for themselves. Icons of the life of St. Ignatius were installed in our chapel where I contemplated, especially one which included a depiction of torture referencing the horror of U.S. torture revealed Abu Gharib. In 2007 a fellow seminarian shared with me the findings of the International Red Cross concerning inhumane treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo and we organized at Loyola University an Ash Wednesday tableau of waterboarding vs. washing of the feet.

I donate to Witness Against Torture because it is such an effective frontline impact organization.


We refuse to accept the world destroying tyranny of torture.


At the Guantanamo: 20 years conference held at Brighton University November 12, Shaker Aamer said, “We never hunger strike to die, we did it to show we are human beings.”


And we have witnessed the humanity and agency of the men: Using only their bodies to discredit US policy, undermine Guantanamo’s legitimacy, establish political community, build bonds of solidarity and demand freedom from ill treatment.


Because of the logics of Islamophobia, as Dr. Maha Hilal showed, no one has received clemency.


Yet we have witnessed a force more powerful. As Jeremy Varon said of the case of Omar Farah, "No one was ever released because a judge admitted innocence but because Omar Farah became a nuisance he freed himself from the most powerful military apparatus in the world.” The same is true of Shaker Aamer, Mansoor Adayfi, Majid Khan, Mohamedou Ould Slahi...


I donate to Witness Against Torture because in this political phase of "Do the Right thing" pressure on Biden, we led our Coalition partners. Because we live in the question of our conscience everyday, in solidarity with the self determination of the men in Guantanamo. Because we will continue to seek the abolition of the Muslim prison.


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for reference 
Mansoor Adayfi, Antonio Aiello. Don't Forget Us Here. New York: Hachette, 2021. 197, 206-07.

Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History. New York: The New American Library, 1968. 287.

B. W. Godfrey; C. A. Lowe. "Devaluation of Innocent Victims--An Attribution Analysis Within the Just World Paradigm" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 31. Issue 5. May 1975. 944-951. abstract available:

(an hour into the conference Dr. Maha Hilal talks see minute 1:21 

Democracy Now!: An hour interview of Amy Goodman with Mansoor Adayfi taped last September was aired Friday morning November 26.  If you missed it, you can watch it here: 


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