It takes Dante Terrell Smith, a.k.a. Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def, actor, rapper, political agitator, a mere 48 seconds from the moment the end of the feeding tube disappears up his nose to start weeping and beg the doctors to stop.
Bey is the star — if you want to call it that — of a new four-and-a-half minute video, produced by the human-rights organization Reprieve, that shows him “demonstrating the Standard Operating Procedure for force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.” By the video’s account, it’s a nasty procedure of chains and straps and head restraints, like something you might see in the facilities on Shutter Island, like Bey is in for one hell of a root canal.
You never see the doctors’ faces — just a syringe, the feeding tube, and a bunch of hands in blue medical gloves. They lube the tube up and plunge it into Bey’s nose; he winces, and the next minute shows a lot of squirming, agonized moaning, and tears.
It is distinctly uncomfortable to watch, and before I go on to criticize Bey for his little agitprop, I should say that I would not want to be force-fed. But not because it’s torture — because it looks unpleasant, and because you can’t pipe in prime-grade chateaubriand.
But force-feeding has become the new cause du jour for those hoping to free Guantanamo’s prisoners. Of the 166 detainees, 106 are participating in a hunger strike that, according to the detainees’ lawyers, began in February when guards did not accord proper respect to prisoners’ Korans during a search of their cells. Some, such as celebrity detainee Shaker Aamer, are protesting their continued detention despite being cleared for release. And several of them are rather unhappy to be kept alive by prison personnel.
Ahmed Belbacha told Rolling Stone that Guantanamo guards have said to him, “I could never take what you are going through.” Shaker Aamer told CNN that “the way they have gone about force-feeding has been designed to be torturous.” In a New York Times op-ed, Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel wrote: “I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. . . . I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.” (For folks supposedly being oppressed under the thumb of the Great Satan, they manage to snag quite a bit of airtime; when was the last time a prisoner in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison got to sit down with CNN?)
It’s a cunning thing, the Guantanamo hunger strike. Hunger strikes have always been an act of political theater, an attempt to induce shame and effect some particular change by starving oneself — and, hey, if that does not work, you get to condemn your captors for their ruthlessness and, eventually, you even get to become a martyr. Think Bobby Sands, Irish Republican Army terrorist-turned-people’s-hero.
In the case of the Gitmo hunger strike, the detainees, with the help of sympathizers on Capitol Hill, in the media, and at myriad human-rights organizations, have effectively made the U.S. government the agent of gross evil and injustice whatever it does. Keep them at Guantanamo? They’ll call it torture and go on hunger strike. Try to keep them alive? They’ll call it torture and pen an op-ed for the Times.