By an Overwhelming Margin, Celebrities Who Tried It Don't Like Being Tortured

Elspeth Reeve
July 8, 2013

The rapper known as Mos Def volunteered to be force-fed through the nose to bring attention to the force-feeding of 44 detainees on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, and he did not like it. In the video of the feeding, he begs the medical team to stop and cries. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def's name) is one of many celebrities who have volunteered to be tortured, only to report to the world that being tortured is horrible. It both draws attention to the suffering of anonymous people and turns their suffering into a spectacle. Does the spectacle help change the conversation? Here are four cases:

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Mos Def, Force Feeding

Reprieve, a group that works with Guantanamo Bay prisoners, made the four-minute video of Bey being force-fed according to the U.S. government's standard operating procedure. The video shows how the pain of force feeding is not fleeting, because they have to stick the tube far into your body to reach your stomach. There is a risk of accidentally putting the tube in your lungs. The feeding lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, but can take up to two hours.

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Is it torture? Bey seems to think so. "I really didn't know what to expect," he says. "When the tube went in—at first it's not that bad, but then you get this burning… and it just starts to get really unbearable… like something's going into my brain and it reaches the back of my throat and I really, I really… I really couldn't take it."

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Does the world think it's torture? The World Medical Association says it's "unethical, and is never justified." 

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Will it change anything? We'll see. Bey's video was released when Guantanamo is getting more attention after being mostly ignored for years. It's only weeks after the massive hunger strike forced President Obama to address the problem. Obama will allow detainees from Yemen to return there if they've been cleared for release (86 prisoners were cleared for release three years ago, but can't go home for bureaucratic reasons.)

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Christopher Hitchens, Waterboarding 

In 2008, Christopher Hitchens got waterboarded for Vanity Fair. He was laid on a wooden plank, his face covered tightly with a towel, and then water was poured over it. "You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it 'simulates' the feeling of drowning," Hitchens said.

"This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The 'board' is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered."

Is it torture? Hitchens said yes. "I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.' Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

Does the world think it's torture? Yes. "I would have no problems with describing this practice as falling under the prohibition of torture," the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said in 2008.

Did it change anything? In September 2007, almost a year before Hitchens' article, ABC News reported the CIA had stopped waterboarding. President George W. Bush vetoed a bill to outlaw the practice in March 2008. Waterboarders were never punished, but there is a stigma around waterboarding now that might not have been as intense if it weren't for Hitchens. Earlier this year, when John Brennan was nominated to be CIA chief, he was forced to say he felt bad for not stopping the practice. "I had expressed my personal objections and views to some agency colleagues," Brennan said, "But I did not try to stop it, because it was something that was being done in a different part of the agency under the authority of others, and it was something that was directed by the administration at the time." He was confirmed.

Lil Wayne: Solitary Confinement

The rapper Lil Wayne's story is different—his experiment with harsh treatment was not voluntary. He went to prison in 2010 for attempted gun possession. The last 30 days of his eight-month sentence were served in solitary confinement because the rapper was caught with an mp3 player.

Is it torture? Lil Wayne did not like it. He wrote to fans, "Obviously, this gives me a lot of time to myself and a lot of alone time with my thoughts, which can be creatively dangerous."  And he told Rolling Stone, "That was the worst... No TV. No radio. No commissary. Basically you're in there 23 hours a day." He watched the world go by through a window in his cell. "I used to sit at that motherfucker all day," he said.

Does the world think it's torture? Maybe. John McCain said of his time as a POW in Vietnam, "It’s an awful thing, solitary… It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." The New Yorker's Atul Gawande explained in 2009, "A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered."

Did it change anything? No. About 80,000 of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in America are held in solitary confinement.

LaToya Jackson, Erik Estrada, Various Others: Tasering

The taser is an electroshock weapon that causes involuntary muscle contractions. Police use it as a non-lethal weapon, but it sometimes kills people. For a CBS reality show in 2007, a cast of minor celebrities got themselves tasered as part of Indiana police training. "We had to just get fried," Jack Osbourne said.

Is it torture? Erik Estrada is seen screaming during the tasering. Later he says there were lingering effects: "One of my testicles has enlarged from getting zapped by a taser." However, the rest of the cast is seen laughing hysterically at the tasering.

Does the world think it's torture? The U.N. Committee Against Torture said in 2009, "The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use."

Did it change anything? No. The celebrities were explicitly getting tortured for our entertainment. In 2010, porn star Dustin Michaels died after being tasered. Last month, a man died near Chicago after being tasered, and a Colorado man died after being tasered while in police custody. Police tasered a San Antonio man to calm him down after his baby died in a fireIn April, a British man died from severe burns after being tasered while holding a can of flammable liquid, which caught on fire.