I have been co-teaching the undergraduate Global Health class at Berkeley this semester, and it just so happens that I was in charge of writing the lesson plan for our last week of section. Eric Stover, the director of the Human Rights Center on campus, was one of our guest lecturers last week. He briefly mentioned the Guantánamo hunger strike during his presentation, but was unable to discuss it in much detail due to the time constraints for our lectures.
Since I wanted to finish my Master’s teaching career with some healthy political discussion, and also felt motivated to shed more light on a human rights issue that has been mostly ignored by the American public for more than a decade, I proposed to my teaching colleagues that we dedicate some extra time talking about Guantánamo and the prisoner’s hunger strike, to which they agreed. So, during this week’s sections we decided to have our 215+ students read the op-ed published in the NYT on April 14, 2013 based on an interview with detainee Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, titled “Gitmo is Killing Me.” We also added an article penned by the paper’s editorial board on April 25, 2013, titled “The Guántanamo Stain.”
For some of the students, this was the first time they had discussed the Guántanamo prison at college and/or engaged in a conversation about why it’s so contentious. Of course, pretty much all of them had heard about it before, but simply hearing about a place/issue through the protective screen of mainstream American media isn’t really enough to make a person invest the cognitive attention necessary to form a true opinion about it. To put it lightly, some of the students were absolutely shocked by our discussion. We talked about the Tokyo Declaration from 1975, the World Medical Association’s position on forced feeding in prisons, and Obama’s past statements about intending to shut down Guantánamo. We talked about the roles of doctors, lawyers, and journalists in society, and how they can abuse their positions of power, although many people like to think that it rarely happens. We talked about the larger repercussions for global society and people’s health when human rights abuses occur.
After reading the articles, one of my students simply asked, “So, what needs to be done to shut it down?” The simple questions tend to be the hardest to answer. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, it’s to turn those “wicked problem” questions back to the class to really get them thinking (and simultaneously dismiss yourself from starting up an academic circle jerk of one - the worst!). One of the students stated that some people argue the prison can’t be shut down because even if the detainees hadn’t been terrorists beforehand, they would probably be more motivated to become them upon exit. My response was that I can see why people might form that argument, but I don’t really buy it. I also think that statements like that really force you to consider your own moral prerogatives surrounding human rights. Do you justify the abuse of a human being based on speculation about what they might do in the future? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? If we are really going to be champions of human rights, they need to be put first, no matter the circumstances. I think our discussion about Guantánamo highlights the fact that many people actually do have a lot of mental barriers to break down in order to fully engage in work that promotes human rights.
I think that “Gitmo is Killing Me” forms an important step in the process of shutting Guantánamo down as an offshore detention center that has been skirting around legal regulations normally applied stateside, simply by the unmerited “privilege” of its geographic location. Last time I checked, human rights are supposed to apply EVERYWHERE. Starting frank discussions about contentious issues can help shed light on them and in many cases, bring about impactful policy change. I’m not holding my breath too much, but today Obama vowed to take action to close down the prison. I hope my students are following the news!
So, to wrap things up, I think that our Global Health sections went well this week, if we are gauging our success in terms of getting students to look at human rights and health impacts from a new perspective. Many of my students are pre-med (or now, pre-MPH! or many other pre-whatever professions, which in the grand scheme of things also affect population health). I decided to also use my last teaching session to indoctrinate these future professionals with a half-baked piece of advice, which went something like this: Too often, people enter medical and/or health professions, thinking that they are politically neutral careers. I encouraged my students to not adopt this mentality. Any action or decision that one makes in a career is influenced by personal morals, values, and experiences, and those are what form the base of politics. The decisions that someone makes to influence a person’s health have a political foundation and history, even if it may seem distant. Choosing to always adopt a neutral standpoint in a career can sometimes do more harm than good. In conclusion, it is important to speak up when you see something that doesn’t sit right with you and share your opinion with others!