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.
So how bad are things at Gitmo? “Just a few years ago, detainees got so plump from overeating hummus and other dishes from the camp’s Islamically correct menu that commanders specially ordered treadmills to help them lose weight,” Hoover Institution fellow Paul Sperry wrote recently in the New York Post. “Then they ordered them again — because they weren’t made by Muslims.” He quotes a prison official who reported that “even the hunger strikers were gaining weight because of all the food.” The detainees have multiple halal meal options, and even the hunger strikers can choose their flavor of Ensure, the liquid nutritional supplement they are fed.
It’s a no-win game for the U.S. government, made worse by President Obama’s incoherent Guantanamo policy. After promising to shut the facility down as soon as he took office, he reversed his position and left it running; as a compromise, instead of capturing enemy combatants and dragging them to Cuba, he killed them in drone strikes. Then, in his May 23 foreign-policy address at the National Defense University, he again called for the closure of Guantanamo and, noting that detainees were being force-fed, pontificated: “Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.” Obama’s hand-wringing came after his lamentation, just one month earlier: “I don’t want these individuals to die.” Goodness. That is a conundrum.
Now Yasiin Bey comes along and inserts himself into the debate. A little background: Yasiin Bey is a popular rapper, and a lot of moviegoers have probably seen his face. Still, his most famous role is probably Left Ear, a half-deaf bomb-maker in the 2003 blockbuster remake The Italian Job. And if accepting a role in Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, a made-for-MTV movie, does not raise questions about his judgment, his political activities should. In 2000, Bey performed a benefit concert for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted cop-killer sitting on Death Row. Following Hurricane Katrina, he penned “Dollar Day,” also known as “Katrina Clap,” which accused the government of racism and called President Bush “a natural ass . . . out treatin’ n****z worse than they treat the trash.” Catchy.
It’s no surprise that Bey chose to take up the cause of Guantanamo detainees, and volunteering to undergo force-feeding is exactly the kind of publicity stunt that a sort-of-famous artist-cum-activist might perform. What is surprising is how much pain he seems to experience.
The National Library of Medicine reroutes queries for “force feeding” to “enteral nutrition,” which is defined by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (A.S.P.E.N.) as, simply, “tube feeding.” “People can live well on tube feeding for as long as it is needed,” says the organization’s Enteral Nutrition fact sheet. “One type of tube can be placed through the nose into the stomach or small bowel. This tube is called a nasogastric or nasoenteral feeding tube.”
How many people are tube-fed? According to the Feeding Tube Awareness Foundation, some 345,000 Americans use feeding tubes at home every day. Tens of thousands more use them during temporary and long-term hospital stays.
In fact, nasogastric intubation seems to be a rather pedestrian occurrence. You can learn how to do it on YouTube: here, here, here, and here. Or here. Here is one where the intubated patient drinks and chats. There are hundreds of such videos.
So what left Yasiin Bey in so much pain? Nasogastric feeding can be an uncomfortable process, and occasionally the tube can poke into the larynx or irritate the nasal passage or cause vomiting. Not fun. But not torture.
Did Bey ham it up for the cameras? Who knows? Maybe he has particularly sensitive nostrils. Either way, the issue with force-feeding — condemned by the World Medical Association, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and similar arbiters of conscience — is not one of medicine. It’s one of consent — and on that question the ethical considerations are backwards: Insofar as a hunger strike is slow-motion suicide, the doctors are actually doing their medical duty by keeping the prisoners alive.
And not to be nonchalant about the whole thing, but just think: These prisoners could be one of their many comrades who ended up on the business end of a Hellfire missile. Honestly, this seems like the better deal to me.
— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.