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Peaceful Terrorist Hunger Strike, Gandhi Style, Should Lead to Closing Guantanamo Bay

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Ryan J. Reilly / Huffington Post
Ryan J. Reilly / Huffington Post

When President Obama first took office, a rumor circulated that he had replaced a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office favored by President Bush with one of Abraham Lincoln and sent the Prime Minister packing back to the British Embassy.

Obama's alleged actions were seen both as a slap in the face to the British and an ideological statement against traditional British imperialism.

The truth is that there had been two busts of Churchill in the White House. The original Winston had remained in another part of the White House while the second one, a loaner to Bush from Great Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, was actually removed with the rest of other lent works of art by the White House curator on Inauguration Day.

The alleged banishment of Churchill issue came to light again during the presidential election, when Mitt Romney promised to restore Mr. Churchill to the Oval Office. The New York Times reported "...the return of the Churchill bust has become a symbol in the eyes of Mr. Obama's critics that the president does not hold the same values as Britain's iconic wartime prime minister."

Now, with former al-Qaida terrorists at Guantanamo adopting the non violent protest hunger strike tactics that Mahatma Gandhi effectively used against Churchill and the British Empire, Obama, like Bush, may want to start looking at the Churchill bust too for some inspiration in dealing with this ironic peaceful strike by accused terrorists.

This hunger strike, the latest of a series that have taken place at Guantanamo, may prove the biggest test of Obama's "endless war on terror" policies that have centered on concluding the two big conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the same time continues to expand our limited, surgical engagement against radical Islamists in many other countries -- and continues to keep the Guantanamo Bay terror prison open.

Due to both the guerilla and fanatical religious tenor of this "war on terror," there is no way that any cease fire, armistice, or even outright military victory, can ever be achieved by Obama or any future president.

In the meantime, those Guantanamo terrorist prisoners have sat there in limbo, with no definite sentences or hope of a defeat or conclusion of hostilities that would end their stay in the prison.

Now, by staging a series of hunger strikes that worked so well for Gandhi against the British, these prisoners of endless war are forcing the president to face the questions of both the legality and practicality of keeping Guantanamo Bay open 12 years after September 11th.

The protest, which started on February 6th, evolved after a change in policy in the prison that led to more intrusive searches of the prisoner's cells and Qurans, as well as the growing desperation surrounding the indefinite confinement of these men, some of whom have been there for over a decade.

"What is driving this is the hopelessness," defense lawyer Carlos Warner told the Toronto Star. "You've got incredible frustration there ... the bigger issue is the Obama administration has completely ignored Guantanamo. They're not dumb; the detainees know this."

According to military officials, at the beginning of this week there were 28 prisoners participating in the hunger strike and 10 of these protesters were being forced fed to prevent them from starving to death.

These hunger strikers are making Obama confront the same quandary that faced Churchill and the Viceroy of India in 1942 when Gandhi went on a hunger strike to protest Indian involvement in World War II. Then, while Churchill had favored letting Gandhi starve to death, his advisors were able to convince him to soften his tough stance and eventually release the Indian leader from custody because they were afraid that he would have become a martyr if he died imprisoned by the British.

Despite his inclination to do otherwise, Churchill did the wise thing and allowed Gandhi to live to continue his fight -- and become a martyr at the hands of an assassin years later.

Now Obama faces the same quandary that Churchill did: Continue to indefinitely confine these striking prisoners and allow them to starve themselves to death (or try them under military law and shoot them) or release them after years of indefinite imprisonment as undeclared prisoners of war and close what is an illegal prison under both American and International law.

Yes, maybe putting the Churchill bust back in the Oval Office would inspire President Obama to finally make those tough and long overdue decisions about what to do about Guantanamo Bay and its prospective terrorist martyrs.

This article appeared in The Florida Squeeze on March 27, 2013

Steven Kurlander is an attorney and communications strategist in Monticello, New York. He blogs at Kurly's Kommentary and writes for the Florida Squeeze. He can be emailed at kurly@stevenkurlander.com