This was published first by Earthblog.net, on June 29, 2006, and I’ll always be grateful to Marc Madow for the indulgence and patience in getting it together. Because there was also a third person involved, who actually constructed the Earthblog website, sorting out all the footnotes took a lot of doing. (Here, we find each digression on a separate page, just a click away.) I was trying to make it so anyone who is fairly knowledgeable about all this, would not be bored. And also, to provide enough background for things to make sense, if needed.
Anyway, for Earthblog I didn’t have to cut anything or change anything, and it was just about my favorite writerly experience ever.
What Would You Die For?
People die every day in their thousands; every hour of every day, they die. Mostly in horrible ways. Still, some modes of death can capture the world’s attention. Back when very few Americans had even heard of Vietnam, that photo of a man serenely at rest amid flames was, for some of us, the first clue. When a monk is moved to make a point by setting himself on fire, the situation needs to be looked at.
Bobby Sands starved himself to death in order to bring attention to a great wrong: the captivity of his country and his people. He and the other Long Kesh hunger strikers knew what they died for. Unlike many impoverished youth worldwide who are grabbed off the streets, handed weapons, and sent into battle, these volunteers had no doubts or illusions. They wanted Ireland unoccupied, and they also wanted the rights specified by the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war: exactly what the Guantanamo conflict is about. At Long Kesh, Special Category status for Irish rebels had been abolished in 1976. According to the authorities, prisoners abused their hospitality by giving classes in guerrilla terrorism. The hunger strikers, when all else failed, made use of their “last, best weapon” in a final, non-violent protest that the Brits, had the phrase occurred to them, would have called an “act of asymmetrical warfare.”
Why does Bobby Sands so perfectly fill the role of culture hero? Well, he was young, vibrant, and handsome. Those traits aren’t supposed to matter, but let’s admit they do, and they make his death even more of a sad pity and a waste. There’s that famous picture you see everywhere. Leave aside what kind of lover he might have been, or what kind of father. Politicals are notoriously unable to maintain a stable family life. But he looks like a guy you’d want to buy a drink for – somebody you’d like to play cards with, go camping, or just generally hang out with. By all accounts, he was.
What would you die for? Kate Braverman poses this question in a poem, defending her cocaine addiction. Every year the Darwin Awards salute those who manage to remove themselves from the gene pool in spectacularly stupid ways. People are willing to die for the fastest car ride ever, or the biggest orgasm. Swaggering gangsta rappers, so facile with their guns – their posing bears no more resemblance to righteous action than porn does to passion. It’s all part of the clownification of Western culture.
Schopenhauer asked, “What penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself?” Like so many of the old philosopher’s sayings, this one seems deep, but on further examination is revealed as nonsense. Fear of death can easily be suppressed or bypassed. With the right combination of testosterone, pharmaceuticals, and hate, any hoodlum or suicide bomber can be brave for those few crucial seconds. How many street toughs have the courage required for willful self-starvation? If death entailed several weeks of ever-increasing pain, would they be so eager for it?
There are others who don’t fear death: the ones who have their spiritual stuff together. Even among normal, everyday folk, death is less feared than what often leads to it: long-term suffering and disability – which happen to be the very horrors a hunger striker signs on for.
A person determined to starve can deliberately make it worse by allowing himself water. The dying takes much longer. That’s how the Irish prisoners did it, strategically. The longer it took them to die, the more column inches of newsprint their message would fill, the more airwaves it would capture. But there was another reason to prolong their desperate protest. Michael Devine wrote, “Not only to die, but to choose a death which is slow and agonizing, further serves to illustrate the depths of courage and sincerity…” Long Kesh was full of rebels armed with the intention to sacrifice their lives, in a protracted and miserable way, for a principle.
*”It’s an ugly death”*
After the first two or three days fasting, you don’t feel hungry any more. For a while. But then you do. You’re likely to get very irritable and somewhat confused. There might even be delusions and hallucinations. Soon your eyes start to go, and before long, you can only make out light and shadow. Talking gets very difficult. Paddy Quinn says, “I could hear the scraping and screeching of the blood on the back of my brain, I could feel this terrible pain. ….. I could hear the noise in my throat, gasping for breath….It was just pain, day after day.”
The body becomes too weak to hold itself up, much less walk. You need a wheelchair, if there’s anyone around who cares enough to put you in one. The organism digests itself, mining its own cells ever more deeply in a vain attempt to feed those same cells. Even if you’re willing to drink water, your body spews it back out. “I can vividly recall the sounds of their retching,” Laurence McKeown says of his fellow prisoners.
Unable to process the toxic load, your kidneys collapse. As the seconds tick by, each one offers another chance to back down. The decision is always there to be made, over and over, because food still shows up at mealtimes, right there within reach. Two weeks into starvation, Bobby Sands wrote, “It was inviting (I’m human too) and I was glad to see it leave the cell. Never would I have touched it… Ha! My God, if it had have attacked, I’d have fled.” As their bodies deteriorated, the strikers wrote or spoke their thoughts.
Michael Devine: “What it takes to willingly undergo this ordeal…none of us can possibly imagine.” (But he found out. Shortly after writing those words he began to deny food, and became the tenth fatality.)
Bobby Sands: “Nothing else seems to matter except that lingering constant reminding thought, ‘Never give up’. No matter how bad, how black, how painful, how heart-breaking, ‘Never give up’, ‘Never despair’, ‘Never lose hope’.”
Paddy Quinn: “I have to do this; I’m going to keep going.” Quinn talks about looking forward to death with a sense of contentment. “I had accepted I was going to die and I was happy with my decision”
Close to the end, a visitor reported that Bobby Sands looked 90 years old. “His eyes are sunk in his head, the bones are sticking out of his face, and his teeth are sticking out. There is no movement in his body. His face is a blackish color. When I first saw him, I thought he was dead already.” He succumbed two days later, with his family keeping watch, after 66 days of starvation.
As life drained out of him, Bobby Sands was nominated for a seat in the British House of Commons. Father Joe McVeigh spoke up to denounce any implication that a vote for Sands was a vote for violence. Moreover, he reminded his fellow priests that prisoners are one of the groups specifically named by Jesus as needful and deserving of support.
Sending a strong message through the ballot box, the people elected Bobby Sands. The Prime Minister of course tried to invalidate the election results, but the Labour party stepped in, backed by the Scots and the Welsh, so the tactic failed. Now, when Thatcher still refused to consider the strikers’ demands, it wasn’t just some scuzzy yob that she sentenced to death. Bobby Sands was a Member of Parliament, equal in rank to herself.
*The Vatican’s Problem Child*
Unless some major organ failed first, the striker would eventually fall into a coma. At this point, next of kin could give permission for forced feeding. The Catholic Church, as an institution, was never supportive of the IRA or the nationalist movement in general. It didn’t say a mumblin’ word to Prime Minister Thatcher, but concentrated on brainwashing and harassing the families, who already had more than enough grief. Pope John Paul II sent a monsignor to try and talk Bobby Sands into quitting. Relatives were urged to undermine the strikers’ resolve, to either persuade their ungodly son or brother to give up the struggle, or to wait until the prisoner was unconscious, and then break their promises of non-intervention.
Suicides have been called the aristocrats of death, but not by the Pope. As soon as Bobby Sands died, the bishops of Ireland issued a press release to remind everyone that “suicide is a great evil,” though they were gracious enough to add that a political hunger strikes might not lead to eternal damnation. All the Long Kesh dead were given church funerals. At least one priest, Father Salvatore Riccardi, found them a loophole, going public with the theory that a hunger strike isn’t really suicide, because its purpose is not to die but to win rights; because although the possibility of death is accepted, it’s not inevitable. If, for instance, the government decided to capitulate, then death would not result.
*Not bloody likely*
Still, in their hearts the hunger strikers knew the government would not give in, and the game would play itself out to the bitter end. They really, truly believed in the Irish people’s right to liberty, and saw the hunger strike as a principled solution, the only one available. They were in a no-choice situation. “We here are helpless. All we have to give is our lives,” Michael Devine wrote.
When Bobby Sands died, 75 to 100 thousand people showed up for the service. Worldwide, masses were said in church and the other kind of masses were mobilized to march. In New York the Irish bars took the serious step of closing for a couple of hours. The Grateful Dead were in concert on Long Island. Some words were said about Bobby Sands, and Jerry Garcia dedicated to him the performance of “He’s Gone.” In Tehran, revolutionaries seriously annoyed the British Embassy by renaming a road. The embassy had to move its main entrance around the corner so its address wouldn’t be on Bobby Sands Street.
“Let tyrants tremble before men who are capable of dying for their ideals after 60 days of hunger strike!,” Fidel Castro said in a speech a few months later. The Cuban leader even denigrated the suffering of Christ on the cross, as paltry compared to this much longer agony.
*Ain’t Nobody’s Business*
Probably the only thing the Brits did right in the whole history of Ireland was to keep their hands off the strikers. Of course it would have been even more right to recognize the IRA and other politicals as POWs and treat them accordingly, but since they couldn’t bring themselves to do that, they did the right thing by letting the hunger strike proceed without interference. Force-feeding hunger strikers is a violation as obscene and wicked as rape. It nullifies the only sovereignty left to an abjectly powerless individual. It interferes with the spiritual development of the person who has decided to take this difficult course. It negates the sacrifice the person has determined to make for a greater cause.
Even if the suicide by starvation is for a non-altruistic purpose, simply to escape from an unbearable existence, the person’s right to take his or her own life should be respected absolutely, whatever the circumstances. A government that doesn’t like to see prisoners starve themselves to death needs to do something, for sure, but force-feeding isn’t it. Especially when that government is so eager to let you sacrifice yourself invading some country so oil billionaires can have a nice life. Especially when that government appropriates for itself the right to execute you, if you do something bad enough. Given those facts, that it should presume to prevent you from terminating your own existence is even more heinous.
Did the hunger strike accomplish anything? Yes and no. By the end of May, with four dead, the London Times reported that “world opinion has begun to shift away from the British government and in favor of the IRA.” But there were riots in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Around 60 police, soldiers and civilians died in violent episodes related to the Hunger Strikes. Bobby Sands wouldn’t have called that success. And later on, as the Nineties drew to a close, Irish political prisoners were again re-criminalized.
But in 1981, the political prisoners did get some breaks, as demands were finally met. The surviving rebels described it as a massive political victory, because world awareness had been focused on their plight. The political consciousness of the Irish people was raised, refined, and focused, as nationalist splinter groups that had been at odds with each other united. The church lost its stranglehold on Ireland’s Catholic working class, who turned instead to the “gospel of the oppressed.” The sacrifices made by the Long Kesh inmates inspired downtrodden people around the world to get their solidarity on.
The US government has reason to remember the Irish martyrs. Since Guantanamo became a concentration camp, hundreds of prisoners have gone on hunger strike – unsuccessfully, because they are strapped down and fed through a naso-gastric tube. Going in, it can cause bleeding and infection. After insertion, its position in the stomach needs to be carefully verified. If it winds up in the breathing passages, the results could be fatal. The liquid needs to be introduced slowly, not just shoved in. The procedure is recommended only for short-term use, and it’s best when the tube is left in place, not reinserted several times a day. Even in a hospital, under ideal conditions, with a cooperative patient and a compassionate technician, tube feeding is hazardous and horrible. In the prison setting, it’s a brutal assault, just another method of torture.
And of course, Northern Ireland is still under British rule. But it’s a different place now. There is work, even enough work for a huge immigrant population. Not that anybody’s statistics about anything should ever be trusted, but an unemployment rate of under 5% is mentioned. Long Kesh prison is out of business, and developers have controversial plans for the huge tract of land. They aim to build a sports stadium, multiplex movie theater, fancy hotel, equestrian center, maybe an ice skating rink. One of the H-blocks and the hospital wing, and a few other structures, are listed as heritage buildings and will be preserved, and that’s where a proposed international center for conflict transformation will be housed.
So Bobby Sands has been dead a quarter of a century, a nice poetic unit of time. And that’s important, because he was, above all, a poet. He wasn’t the equal of William Butler Yeats, but poetry lives in the heart, and how it comes out on paper is pretty much irrelevant. For better or worse, the main lesson here is: today’s political prisoner is tomorrow’s saint.
“Let our revenge be the laughter of our children,” Bobby Sands said. He’d probably be delighted with the stadium and the theater and all the other fun things. But that isn’t what he died for. “I have the spirit of freedom that cannot be quenched by even the most horrendous treatment,” he wrote. “Never … have they succeeded in breaking the spirit of one man who refused to be broken.”