Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 17, 2013

House of Burgess: Extreme exercises in empathy

Mos Def shows George Zimmerman how it's done.

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— On July 8, anti-death penalty nonprofit group Reprieve released a shocking video on The Guardian’s website.

At the start of the clip, a warning explains “some viewers may find these images distressing.” The title card fades as a new one appears. “There are currently 120 detainees on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay,” it reads. “Forty-four of them are being force-fed against their will. Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def, volunteered to undergo the procedure used on the detainees. This is what happened.”

The only objects on set appear to be a restraint-laden chair, a pair of Klieg lights, a rolling IV stand and Mos Def, the rapper and actor. I’ll spare you the play-by-play of what happens next.

Reading the introductory paragraph of Jason Leopold’s May 13 report for Al Jazeera regarding the real procedure provides more than enough exposition. “Hunger striking Guantanamo prisoners who are force-fed a liquid nutritional supplement undergo a brutal and dehumanizing medical procedure that requires them to … sit shackled in a restraint chair for as long as two hours,” he reported. “The prisoners remain this way, with a 61cm — or longer — tube snaked through their nostril until a chest X-ray, or a test dose of water, confirms it has reached their stomach.”

In the demonstration, Mos doesn’t last but a few minutes into the process before melting into a howling mess. The point of the video is well made: The practical mechanics of this brutal method should be more than enough to cause anyone to think twice about its use.

Any educator will tell you about the importance of the growth of empathy in children. “Empathy is a potential psychological motivator for helping others in distress,” begins a report by Nicole M. McDonald and Daniel S. Messinger of the University of Miami. “Empathy can be defined as the ability to feel or imagine another person’s emotional experience. The ability to empathize is an important part of social and emotional development, affecting an individual’s behavior toward others and the quality of social relationships.”

Humans necessarily begin life solipsistic. Abstract emotional thinking must be cultivated and encouraged.

In my Nov. 28, 2012, column, “Put politicians on food stamps,” I detailed the various efforts public figures have taken over the years to understand the struggles of the less fortunate. These fine individuals included: Cory Booker, Newark, N.J. mayor and now Senate candidate, and Greg Stanton, Phoenix, Ariz. mayor, who both spent a week living on a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program diet; Christopher Hitchens, the late great journalist, who agreed to be waterboarded; and Rep. Leo Ryan, the California congressman who spent 10 days in 1970 as a prisoner — under a pseudonym — in Folsom State Prison.

Last month, 26 members of Congress followed Booker and Stanton’s example in protest of the massive food stamp cuts in the approved Farm Bill. None of these leaders emerged on the opposite end of their experiment the same as when they started.

I write these words just over 24 hours after George Zimmerman was acquitted by six jurors in Sanford, Fla., in the death of Trayvon Martin. Listening to Zimmerman’s 911 call from the night of Feb. 6, 2012, is chilling. It’s clear the following exchange is the turning point in the conversation:

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatcher: OK, we don’t need you to do that.

At that moment, had Zimmerman simply followed those instructions, Martin would still be alive and they would have probably remained just as anonymous as they ever were. If Zimmerman had had human solidarity on the brain that fateful evening rather than some overzealous need to confront the dreaded “other,” he could have spared us all the trouble.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.