A Beduin demonstrator holds a sign during a protest in the southern town of Rahat, Israel, in support of Islamic Jihad activist Muhammed Allan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When administrative detainee Muhammad Allan began his hunger strike 65 days ago, he placed the government on the track to the dilemma now upon it: whether to force-feed him or allow him to die.
The possible ramifications of either decision are disturbing: They range from losing even more international political points and being labeled a torturer of prisoners to the outbreak of a third intifada. The dilemma may be characterized as a question of rights: an individual’s right to privacy and/or to commit suicide versus the state’s obligation as his custodian to save his life by forced-feeding.
This first alternative was considered in a US case in 1982.
In Von Holden v. Chapman, a New York appellate court permitted the forced-feeding of a prisoner, stating that: “It is self-evident that the right to privacy does not include the right to commit suicide.”
A prisoner, even one in administrative detention, has basic constitutional rights. In the US, all but one of the few courts addressing this issue have permitted the government to force-feed a prisoner. Moreover, a federal regulation permitting the forced-feeding of federal prisoners has been upheld as constitutional.
In response to the question whether forced-feeding violates a prisoner’s rights, the US Supreme Court stated that, in determining whether an abridgment of a prisoner’s first amendment rights is constitutional, a court should consider whether a prisoner could exercise this right by “alternative means.”
Because hunger strikers can express their views through alternative means, the first amendment does not protect them from being forced-fed. It noted further that, because bodily integrity is a fundamental right, the state may force-feed only if it shows that hunger striking threatens a compelling public interest.
A compelling government interest is promoting the health, safety and welfare of society. As British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1863: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Another compelling government interest is preserving the sanctity of life. Unnecessary death violates our value of life, so perhaps the newly passed law enabling the forced-feeding of prisoners should be imposed without delay.
On the other hand, if the entire episode revolves around the will of one prisoner to die for his beliefs, perhaps letting him starve himself to death to prove a point will ultimately redound as his legacy. As one commentator noted, “human dignity is enhanced by permitting the individual to determine for himself what beliefs are worth dying for.”
If Allan dies, will there be more prison hunger strikes, or another intifada? The Al-Quds Brigades, the armed branch of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, has announced that “If Allan falls as a shahid, it will be a crime of the occupation toward our prisoners and our people that will force us to respond forcefully, ending our obligation to the cease-fire.”
But the government’s offers of a settlement, ranging from exile to release in November, have been scorned.
Apparently Allan is unwilling to compromise and thus forgo Palestinian martyrdom in the service of Islamic Jihad.
In resolving this dilemma, the government should consider Allan’s ultimate protest against administrative detention as a moral issue. There is a crucial difference between someone willing to die for his or her beliefs and someone willing to murder innocent others while making his point.
Socrates would not think of poisoning others to die with him for his views. He made the individual decision to drink his own hemlock and died for his beliefs. However, force-feeding a hunger striker to deny the same choice has been rightfully condemned by most of the medical community as political coercion to obviate the social ramifications of the striker’s death.
There is perhaps one socially redeeming feature of Allan’s choice of the manner of his threatened suicide.
This is the fact that, unlike too many of his terrorist predecessors, he is choosing to commit suicide alone in his hospital bed and not in an attack against Israelis.