Actor and musician Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, recently released a video in which he undergoes the force-feeding procedure that hunger-striking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are being subjected to. You can read a first-hand account here, or watch the video yourself:
Bey has been applauded for drawing attention to the plight of the prisoners as well as criticized for using his celebrity to sensationalize and over-simplify a complex issue. Emily Greenhouse discusses some of the controversy in her blog piece for the New Yorker.
But whether you think Bey’s contribution to this cause is substantive or not, let’s not forget the real issue regarding the situation at Guantanamo. Every attempt to marginalize or discredit Bey’s message amounts to little more than a call to ignore these facts:
- 166 people are currently being detained at Guantanamo Bay
- 86 have been cleared for release or transfer … but are still being held there
- 140 of the detainees are currently on a hunger strike
- 44 of them are being force fed twice a day
The World Medical Association, in its Declaration of Tokyo, says:
Where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially. The decision as to the capacity of the prisoner to form such a judgment should be confirmed by at least one other independent physician. The consequences of the refusal of nourishment shall be explained by the physician to the prisoner.
This declaration has been endorsed by the American Medical Association. AMA President Dr. Jeremy Lazarus, in a letter Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, cites the Tokyo declaration and adds:
Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions
The WMA also declare, in their Declaration of Malta, that:
Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment. Equally unacceptable is the forced feeding of some detainees in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting.
In light of the declarations from the WMA, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has said that:
treating a competent detainee without his or her consent — including force feeding — is a violation of the right to health, as well as international ethics for health professionals.
force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike must be assessed as amounting to torture as defined in article 1 of the Convention against Torture.
These declarations are all well and good, but they merely formally confirm what should be patently obvious to any person with a sense of morality: what’s happening at Guantanamo is deeply wrong.
The real problem with this issue is not its moral ambiguity or political intricacies, the problem is that the plight of the Guantanamo prisoners is far too easy to ignore. It doesn’t affect our lives. We don’t see it in front of us. We go about our day in a self-absorbed haze and are, generally speaking, far more concerned with what we’re going to have for lunch than with the fact that people are being strapped to a chair and forced to have lunch. We eat a hamburger while prisoners have tubes shoved down their noses.
Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away and doesn’t make it any less serious. If we claim to care about people, to care about their rights and their lives and their freedoms, then we can’t sit idly by while the very government that purports to stand for those freedoms blatantly abuses them. Every human life has value and until we recognize and protect that value — for all people, not just those that look like us and think like us and believe like us — we, as a country, as a culture and as a world, are settling for a second-rate society that simply isn’t sustainable. Until we properly acknowledge the importance of these issues and directly face the consequences of our national policies, we’ll continue to sacrifice the sanctity of life for selfish interests.
In the words of Mos Def from Fear Not of Man:
from my understanding people get better
when they start to understand that they are valuable
And they’re not valuable because they’ve got a whole lot of money
or ’cause somebody thinks they’re sexy
but they’re valuable ’cause they’ve been created by God
And God makes you valuable
The prisoners at Guantanamo, regardless of how they got there or what they believe, were created by God and have inherent value. When we deny that value we not only devalue them but also devalue ourselves — and, ultimately, we devalue God.