Hunger strikes can result in long-term physical or mental damage, if not death. Yet prisoners continually resort to the harmful form of protest. We explore the power of hunger strikes across history, from “the Troubles” of Northern Ireland to today’s prisoners in Guantanamo.


  • Fran Buntman Assistant professor of sociology, George Washington University
  • Padraig O'Malley John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.


  • 13:29:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday at least 100 men at Guantanamo Bay are starving themselves. As a hunger strike stretches into a fourth month, it's hard to say if their protest is a statement of defiance or despair. More likely a little bit of both. Hunger strikes are considered a last resort. They can be physically and mentally damaging, if not deadly. But throughout history powerless individuals have used them to highlight the conditions of their confinement.

  • 13:30:22

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn Northern Ireland Bobby Sands and nine other strikers starved to death under Margaret Thatcher's watch, while Nelson Mandela refused meals at Robben Island prison during apartheid in South Africa. Joining me to discuss the power of hunger strikes is Fran Buntman. She is a professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of a book entitled "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Fran Buntman, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:48

    MS. FRAN BUNTMANThank you very much. I'm honored.

  • 13:30:50

    NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone from Boston is Padraig O'Malley. He is John Joseph Moakley distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of several books including "Biting at the Grade: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair." Padraig O'Malley, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:12

    MR. PADRAIG O'MALLEYIt's a pleasure. Thank you.

  • 13:31:14

    NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or sending email to You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. How do you think the Obama Administration should respond to the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers, 800-433-8850. Fran Buntman, hunger strikes are dangerous. If someone stops eating for more than, oh, a couple of weeks it can have permanent effects. It can weaken your bones, can cause lasting vein damage. It can kill you. So what kinds of circumstances leads a person to do this?

  • 13:31:51

    BUNTMANI think different circumstances in different contexts. I think, as you said earlier about Guantanamo, it's probably a combination of protest tactics and desperation. I have used the terms in my book categorical and strategic resistance to define at least two different ways of understanding resistance. And in categorical resistance people are trying to do something as a statement of principle. And strategic resistance people are trying to achieve some broad goal, in other words resistance as a means to an end.

  • 13:32:25

    BUNTMANAnd I suspect that in Guantanamo we have a combination of both, sometimes in the same person and sometimes in different people. Also from what I gather, the fact that the administration has reacted so harshly to the tactics, it's actually increasing the degree of resistance, which is not necessarily a strategic perspective from the administration's side.

  • 13:32:46

    NNAMDIA former Guantanamo detainee named Omar Deghayes talked with NPR about past hunger strikes. And he provides some insight into how they would starve. Let's listen.

  • 13:32:58

    OMAR DEGHAYESUsually it's a small incident -- not small but something that takes place inside the camp. But that triggers other feelings, thinking about why we've been there for many, many years inside those prisons without any chance to look at the evidence. There is no hope. All that comes together. And then it's a cry of help to the outside world usually is that it's the last resort.

  • 13:33:23

    NNAMDIPadraig O'Malley, you've spent significant time studying the Irish Republican hunger strike that took place in the 1980s. Based on what we just heard, do you see any link between the goals of the Irish Republican strikers and those of the Guantanamo detainees?

  • 13:33:39

    O'MALLEYYes, and no. In the case of the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland, the hunger strikers were designed for a specific goal, i.e. to die was not the goal to achieve. Their demands were the goal. And in the case of the prisoners who died, their demands were rather simple. They wanted to wear their own clothes rather than prison garb. They wanted to be treated as prisoners of war not as common criminals.

  • 13:34:12

    O'MALLEYNow the success of the Irish hunger strike -- I want to use the word success -- is because of the worldwide attention particularly given to the hunger strike of Bobby Sands.

  • 13:34:29

    NNAMDIIs that...

  • 13:34:29

    O'MALLEYSo in Northern Ireland there was a massive mobilization of people in support of the hunger strikers. Indeed during Sands' hunger strike he actually got elected to the British parliament. And the belief was that Margaret Thatcher would never allow a member of the British parliament could die because of the political reason but he did. And the way a hunger strike is conducted is very important.

  • 13:35:06

    NNAMDIYeah, you mentioned that the Irish Republican strikers at one point chose not to strike all at once.

  • 13:35:12

    O'MALLEYNo. They tried and they had their first hunger strike in 1980. And seven men went on hunger strikes for the same reasons. They wanted to wear their own clothes. They were wearing no clothes at the time. They had refused to wear clothes for about a couple of years. And they want to wear their own clothes and be called political prisoners. So seven of them went on hunger strike together.

  • 13:35:38

    O'MALLEYAnd while you had seven together on hunger strike where there was communication between them, them being in the same facility and allowed some interaction with each other, you had enormous solidarity between the seven. But the hunger strike is only as strong as its weakest link. And once one of them began to get seriously ill and die, the dynamic that was directed at the British government changed. And the tensions of the others was turned to not allowing the hunger striker who is going to die, die.

  • 13:36:27

    O'MALLEYSo it weakens the hunger strike and they called it off, which is why when they went to the second hunger strike, to get across that psychological barrier what they decided to do is that they would put prisoners on a conveyer belt. And first of all, Bobby Sands would go on. And 20 days later a second person would go on. Twenty days after that a third person. Twenty days after that a fourth, fifth, sixth. They spread them out over a period of several months so that as each hunger striker died another was coming up the conveyer belt getting ready to die.

  • 13:37:12

    O'MALLEYAnd you had these ten that's strung out over six months, which had a transformational affect on the course of the conflict of Northern Ireland, an unintended one. But probably the important point was that the British government at one point said, listen and we got out to Marks and Spencer, we got to Lords and Taylor and we will buy a whole arrange of clothes. You can wear any clothes you want, jeans, slacks, shirts, whatever. And they said, no. That the clothes they wanted to wear had to come from their homes, from their own homes, their own clothes. And over that they were prepared to die.

  • 13:38:03

    O'MALLEYThe second thing is that each secured from the mother -- not the father, but from the mother a promise that when that moment came when the authorities would say, your son is dying and we can save his life right now. He's not in a position to make a decision for himself but we can have him in a hospital by helicopter in 30 minutes and save his life, and what do you want us to do? And they instructed their mothers to say, let him die. It was something fathers could not do.

  • 13:38:43

    O'MALLEYThe third thing was that this was about power. And the IRA prisoners were exerting their power and to get out of the condition they had been in, which one had been living without any clothes at all for over a year. For another year living in their own shit. They actually defecated in their own cells. They smeared their cells with their own -- and that didn't work. That is what turned them towards what they thought would be the final remedy achieve their end.

  • 13:39:21

    NNAMDIPadraig O'Malley is John Joseph Moakley distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He joins us by phone from Boston. Fran Buntman joins us in studio. She's a professor of sociology at George Washington University. She is the author of a book entitled "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Fran Buntman, the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility is now force-feeding the striking detainees to keep them alive. What interest does a state, a government have in preventing a hunger striker from dying?

  • 13:40:02

    BUNTMANHunger strikes, as Professor O'Malley just said, are very much about power. It's the attempt of powerless people to exert some power over their circumstances, and states don't like -- governments don't like people contesting their power, particularly if they're prisoners who they want to have complete control over. So part of the battle for any government, including the United States government, is to say you're not going to have the power over your body. Part of the point of imprisoning people is to have control over their bodies, and the last thing the administration wants is for the detainees to take that power back.

  • 13:40:43

    BUNTMANBut as well as that, there's the huge problem of reputation, and your international standing. And the United States does not want to be Maggie Thatcher. President Obama does not want to be Prime Minister Thatcher and let people die on his watch. It would be a very, very difficult thing for the United States to countenance, and so they would rather defy international law and medical norms and force feed people. So it's about power in the broad sense, and in the narrow sense -- politics in the broad sense, politics in the narrow sense.

  • 13:41:21


  • 13:41:21

    O'MALLEYJust to add to that if I can. When Fran talks about power, because certainly the second set of hunger strikes for the ten young men died was about power, it was like a standoff, because once the strikes stopped, and that was done by a collective decision of all of families, once that happened then the authorities said now you can wear your own clothes, we've won. We've stopped your hunger striking. It didn't work. But now, you can do what you want.

  • 13:42:04

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on understanding hunger strikes. We are interested in hearing from you. 800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join the conversation. Do you think governments should allow hunger strikers to die? Do you think the practice of force feeding at Guantanamo affects the legitimacy of the U.S. Government? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:25

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on understanding hunger strikes. We're talking about Fran Buntman. She is a professor of sociology at George Washington University, and the author a book entitled "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Padraig O'Malley is John Joseph Moakley distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormick Graduate School of University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of several books including "Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair."

  • 13:44:52

    NNAMDIYou can call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to Padraig, Margaret Thatcher famously refused to meet the demands of the Irish republican strikers even as they slowly died of starvation. Her stance on the issue is well known, some say infamous. Let's listen.

  • 13:45:17

    MARGARET THATCHERCrime is crime is crime. It is not political. It is crime and there can be no question of granting political status. I just -- anyone who is on hunger strike for his own sake will see fit to come off hunger strike, but death is a matter for him.

  • 13:45:35

    NNAMDIPadraig, why was Thatcher willing to let the strikers die? Padraig O'Malley, can you hear me? I think we have lost our connection with Padraig O'Malley. But from the Irish Republicans to South Africa, Fran, in the 1960s Nelson Mandela joined prisoners at Robben Island in a hunger strike for better prison conditions. Mandela said he saw the protest as an extension of the anti-apartheid struggle. Please explain.

  • 13:46:06

    BUNTMANI'm happy to. And I wonder if I could just briefly say something about Thatcher in the Northern Ireland context.

  • 13:46:12

    NNAMDIPlease do, yes.

  • 13:46:15

    BUNTMANMaggie Thatcher did not want to be seen to be giving into terrorists and criminals as your quote says, but it's very important to realize that there's something that links the question you asked me about Nelson Mandela. And that Bobby Sands and the (word?) hunger strike is that they too had a very intense -- they too wanted to convey a political message. They wanted to invigorate concern from the outside, and something that's very, very important is hunger strikes are seldom if ever successful if you do not have enough public concern and enough public engagement. Something that seems to be missing actually is more public engagement in the United States right now around Guantanamo.

  • 13:47:00

    NNAMDIYes. There doesn't seem to be a high degree of public engagement, either public support for what the administration is doing, or public outrage at what the administration is doing.

  • 13:47:13

    BUNTMANWell, I think part of the goal of Guantanamo, aside from removing people legally out of U.S. control, which the Supreme Court overruled, but part of the goal was to remove people out of our way of thinking. And unfortunately, that's been very successful, and I think we tend not to think of ourselves as engaging in wars, whether it's in Afghanistan, or anywhere else, and we also tend not to think of ourselves as holding detainees detained without trial in many cases, who the administration has recognized should be released, but has not been able to quite figure out the politics of being able to do it.

  • 13:47:53

    BUNTMANI'm no expert on the congressional and White House dynamics, but that comes across again and again, and...

  • 13:47:59

    NNAMDISo the mere fact that they're held in a place that in our imagination or view is far away, the fact that several of the these individuals have been cleared of all charges, are nevertheless being held at Guantanamo, are on hunger strikes, we still don't give a great deal of thought to it because well, it's so far away it's not really our business?

  • 13:48:21

    BUNTMANWell, we seem to not want to deal with prisons in general very seriously because there are also people on hunger strike in U.S. prisons as we speak, and they have been in the past, and they probably will be in the future. And we -- at times certain things will happen that will draw our attention to the problem with prisons in general, whether they're political prisoners, criminal prisoners, terrorist prisoners, any combination of things.

  • 13:48:47

    BUNTMANBut we tend to have a little bit of a blind spot, and we allow prisons to do what they aim to do which is not just shut people out, but shut our attention out, and I think that's a huge problem, something that I try and put at the center of my work.

  • 13:49:02

    NNAMDIBefore we get to Nelson Mandela, Padraig O'Malley is back with us. This all started, Padraig, with a question to you. Why was Margaret Thatcher willing to let the hunger strikers die?

  • 13:49:13

    O'MALLEYBecause she was Margaret Thatcher. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. You know, on one occasion they nearly blew her up. They had a timer, six months in advance set for the conservative party was holding its convention, and after the prisoners had died, this would be two years afterwards, and that bomb went off during the convention and killed a couple of her ministers and would have killed herself if she had been working -- if she had been in bed and not working. But they sent her a message which said, Mrs. Thatcher, you have to be lucky always. We only have to be lucky once.

  • 13:49:56

    NNAMDISo in a way -- in a way for her it was personal?

  • 13:50:00

    O'MALLEYIn a way for her it was personal. Under no circumstances whatsoever was she going to bend. Now, this had quite a bit of (unintelligible) and to me an important aspect of the hunger strikes is are they having an impact. Well, I Googled the Guantanamo hunger strikes this morning, and as a news item, it was number 34, and that's where it stands in the public sentiment and in the public mind. I looked at the New York Times for the last week, and I looked for anything on the hunger strikes at Guantanamo, couldn't find a thing.

  • 13:50:45

    O'MALLEYSo essentially you have, at least it seems to me, a situation where you have men who are being denied trial, detained, possibly for the rest of their lives, and they will never know why, and they are making the ultimate protest, and that ultimate protest is reaching nobody. Nobody. Now, you can stay on hunger strike force feeding. In the 1970s two sisters, the Price sisters, and members of the IRA who were imprisoned and went on hunger strike and they stayed on a hunger strike being force fed for six months. They were force fed 400 times, and they had a demand, and their demand was that they be repatriated to Northern Ireland, and be allowed to finish off their sentences there, and in the end the authorities allowed them to be returned and face their sentences in Northern Ireland.

  • 13:51:58

    O'MALLEYBut again, it was all about the mobilization of mass opinion, particularly in the United States on their side, media attention, media attention, media attention. No media attention, these men are like dying in a dark pit.

  • 13:52:19

    NNAMDIAllow me to bring Fran Buntman back into the conversation because while you were away I brought up the issue of Nelson Mandela and his own hunger strike that he saw as an extension of the anti-apartheid struggle. How do events inside prison walls eventually influence life on the outside, Fran?

  • 13:52:37

    BUNTMANThat's such an important question. Just the fact that you recognize that things that happen in prison do and does affect life on the outside is such an important realization. It affects it in all sorts of different ways. One of the things on Robben Island was that the prisoners, sometimes in hunger strikes, sometimes in all sorts of other context including quite benign contexts like arranging sporting events, learn to negotiate, and those negotiating skills became critical in facilitating the beginning of the end, and ultimately the end of apartheid, and building a democracy, and there are very similar patterns in Northern Ireland and the north of Ireland, depending on your politics. It's complicated.

  • 13:53:17

    BUNTMANAnd it's true in many other places. So whether it is what we saw in the local area, you had a great show about this last week with the Baltimore jail, whether you've got crime being bred in jail, or whether you've got leadership being bred in jail or prison. Prison does have a huge impact in all sorts of ways, and if you look at South Africa and Robben Island, but the pattern is true in many other places. People like Nelson Mandela, but also many other people whose names would be less recognizable but are also very important, did a lot to cultivate the leadership of younger people who could take on the reins of leadership of the anti-apartheid resistance movement once they were released from prison, keep a strategy hope, history, education alive in prison when people like Mandela were moved to other prisons.

  • 13:54:12

    BUNTMANSo the constructive, or the negative dynamics that can occur in prison are hugely important, and have great impact, and I think that's one of the other important points about Bobby Sands is that ultimately while in some senses he did achieve his goal of reinvigorating the public engagement, in the Republican cause, not just in terms of violence, but in terms of non-violent resistance, and the involvement of Sinn Fein and so on.

  • 13:54:49

    NNAMDIThis is we got in the form of a tweet from Benjamin who tweets, "This a zero sum game. If they let them die, they're negligent. If they are force fed, they are abusive." You say that hunger strikes are worse than a zero sum game. Why?

  • 13:55:04

    O'MALLEYWell, if they don't achieve their end, and the alternative anyway is life without ever seeing the outside, without ever seeing the sky, without ever seeing your family, there's an equivalence, one is the form of the other. It's desperation, hopelessness, despair, but all of those things really mean nothing in terms of an outcome unless there is the media concentrates, gets the story out, starts building a constituency, and even if President Obama went -- said he would do something, he'd have to go to Congress, and anything he sends to Congress is not going to get passed anyway. So these are isolated men.

  • 13:56:04

    NNAMDIWell, maybe one result of not a great deal of media coverage is a misunderstanding of exactly what force feeding is. We got a tweet from Shaun who says, "To what extent do you think they undergo a hunger strike knowing that there will be intervention before death?" But in the case of Guantanamo, from what I've been reading the intervention is not very pleasant.

  • 13:56:28

    BUNTMANIf I can...

  • 13:56:29

    NNAMDIYes. This is Fran.

  • 13:56:31

    BUNTMANIf I could speak to both things.

  • 13:56:32


  • 13:56:32

    BUNTMANI think Benjamin is right in some sense that it's a zero sum game, but I think that's more for the administration than it is for the detainees in the sense that in some tragic sense, it's a win either way for the detainees because if they are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison, they are not winning. So it's not as though that is an achievement. I think the administration is more of a zero sum game than it is for the detainees. I also think it's important in the realm of public opinion to remember it's not just American public opinion. It's international public opinion, and it's recruiting people to al-Qaida and various other radical hateful groups. So that's important too.

  • 13:57:15

    NNAMDIThe other issue, we only have about a minute left. The hunger strike, they undertake it knowing that there will be intervention before death.

  • 13:57:20

    BUNTMANI don't think that's true, and actually most of them do not want to have that intervention, and some people have commented that one of the worst parts of the intervention is it actually brings back the hunger which ends after a certain period of time in hunger strike. Generally people resist being force fed. That's why it's called force feeding. Now, it is possible there is that psychological calculus. We human beings are very complicated, but that would explain some, not all, people.

  • 13:57:51

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Fran Buntman is a professor of sociology at George Washington University, and author of the book entitled "Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid." Padraig O'Malley is John Joseph Moakley distinguished professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormick Graduate School of University of Massachusetts Boston, and author of several books including "Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair."

  • 13:58:16

    NNAMDIThank you both for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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