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A History of Music Torture in the "War on Terror"

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As the legal action charity Reprieve launches a new initiative, Zero dB (against music torture), which encourages musicians to take a stand against the use of their music as part of an arsenal of torture techniques employed by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, looks at the history of music torture in the "War on Terror," and examines musicians' responses to it.

Hit Me Baby One More Time

There's an ambiguous undercurrent to the catchy pop smash that introduced a pig-tailed Britney Spears to the world in 1999 -- so much so that Jive Records changed the song's title to "... Baby One More Time" after executives feared that it would be perceived as condoning domestic violence.

It's a safe bet, however, that neither Britney nor songwriter Max Martin ever anticipated that this undercurrent would be picked up on by U.S. military personnel, when they were ordered to keep prisoners awake by blasting ear-splittingly loud music at them -- for days, weeks or even months on end -- at prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

The message, as released Guantánamo prisoner Ruhal Ahmed explained in an interview earlier this year, was less significant than the relentless, inescapable noise. Describing how he experienced music torture "on many occasions," Ahmed said, "I can bear being beaten up, it's not a problem. Once you accept that you're going to go into the interrogation room and be beaten up, it's fine. You can prepare yourself mentally. But when you're being psychologically tortured, you can't." He added, however, that when music was introduced, at the end of 2003, "It makes you feel like you are going mad. You lose the plot and it's very scary to think that you might go crazy because of all the music, because of the loud noise, and because after a while you don't hear the lyrics at all, all you hear is heavy banging."

Despite this, the soldiers, who were largely left to their own devices when choosing what to play, frequently selected songs with blunt messages -- "Fuck Your God" by Deicide, for example, which is actually an anti-Christian rant, but one whose title would presumably cause consternation to believers in any religion -- even though, for prisoners not used to Western rock and rap music, the music itself was enough to cause them serious distress. When CIA operatives spoke to ABC News in November 2005, as part of a ground-breaking report into the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques on "high-value detainees" held in secret prisons, they reported that, when prisoners were forced to listen to Eminem's Slim Shady album, "The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic." And in May 2003, when the story first broke that music was being used by U.S. PsyOps teams in Iraq, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, whose favored songs were said to be "Bodies" by Drowning Pool and "Enter the Sandman" by Metallica, told Newsweek, "These people haven't heard heavy metal. They can't take it."

Approval for the use of music torture in the "War on Terror"

Depending on people's musical tastes, responses to reports that music has been used to torture prisoners often produces flippant comments, but the truth is far darker, as Hadsell explained after noting that prisoners in Iraq had a problem with heavy metal music. "If you play it for 24 hours," he said, "your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."

Hadsell, like senior figures in the administration, was blithely unconcerned that "breaking" prisoners, rather than finding ways of encouraging them to cooperate, was not to best way to secure information that was in any way reliable, but the PsyOps teams were not alone. In September 2003, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, approved the use of music as part of a package of measures for use on captured prisoners "to create fear, disorient ... and prolong capture shock," and as is spelled out in an explosive new report by the Senate Armed Services Committee into the torture and abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody (PDF), the use of music was an essential part of the reverse engineering of techniques, known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE), which are taught in U.S. military schools to train personnel to resist interrogation. The report explains:

During the resistance phase of SERE training, U.S. military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures ... designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one ... instructor explained, SERE training is "based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years." The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps, and until recently, for some who attended the Navy's SERE school, it included waterboarding.

The Senate Committee's report, which lays the blame for the implementation of these policies on senior officials, including President George W. Bush, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney's former legal counsel (and now chief of staff) David Addington, and former Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II, makes it clear not only that the use of music is part of a package of illegal techniques, but also that at least part of its rationale, according to the Chinese authorities who implemented it, was that it secured false confessions, rather than the "actionable intelligence" that the U.S. administration was seeking.

The experiences of Binyam Mohamed and Donald Vance

In case any doubt remains as to the pernicious effects of music torture, consider the following comments by Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, still held in Guantánamo, who was tortured in Morocco for 18 months on behalf of the CIA, and was then tortured for another four months in the CIA's "Dark Prison" in Kabul, and Donald Vance, a U.S. military contractor in Iraq, who was subjected to music torture for 76 days in 2006.

Speaking to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, Mohamed, like Ruhal Ahmed, explained how psychological torture was worse than the physical torture he endured in Morocco, where the CIA's proxy torturers regularly cut his penis with a razorblade. "Imagine you are given a choice," he said. "Lose your sight or lose your mind."

In Morocco, music formed only a small part of Mohammed's torture. Towards the end of his 18-month ordeal, he recalled that his captors "cuffed me and put earphones on my head. They played hip-hop and rock music, very loud. I remember they played Meat Loaf and Aerosmith over and over. I hated that. They also played 2Pac, "All Eyez On Me," all night and all day ... A couple of days later they did the same thing. Same music. I could not take the headphones off as I was cuffed. I had to sleep with the music on and even pray with it."

At the "Dark Prison," however, which was otherwise a plausible recreation of a medieval dungeon, in which prisoners were held in complete darkness and were often chained to the walls by their wrists, the use of music was relentless. As Mohamed explained:

It was pitch black, and no lights on in the rooms for most of the time ... They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb ... There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this non-stop over and over, I memorized the music, all of it, when they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. It got really spooky in this black hole ... Interrogation was right from the start, and went on until the day I left there. The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night. Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off ... Throughout my time I had all kinds of music, and irritating sounds, mentally disturbing. I call it brainwashing.

Vance's story demonstrates not only that the practice of using music as torture was being used as recently as 2006, but also that it was used on Americans. When his story first broke in December 2006, the New York Times reported that he "wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the FBI about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked," but that "when American soldiers raided the company at his urging, Mr. Vance and another American who worked there were detained as suspects by the military, which was unaware that Mr. Vance was an informer."

Speaking to the Associated Press last week, Vance, who was held at Camp Cropper, said that the use of music as torture "can make innocent men go mad," and explained that during his imprisonment the music "was almost constant, mostly hard rock. There was a lot of Nine Inch Nails, including 'March of the Pigs.' I couldn't tell you how many times I heard Queen's 'We Will Rock You.'" He added that the experience "sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you're in an environment like that."

Musicians take action

The last time that the U.S. administration's use of music as torture hit the headlines was in June, when Stafford Smith raised the issue in the Guardian, and when, in an accompanying article, the Guardian noted that David Gray's song "Babylon" had become associated with the torture debate after Haj Ali, the hooded man in the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, told of being stripped, handcuffed and forced to listen to a looped sample of the song, at a volume so high he feared that his head would burst, Gray spoke up to condemn the practice. "The moral niceties of whether they're using my song or not are totally irrelevant," he said. "We are thinking below the level of the people we're supposed to oppose, and it goes against our entire history and everything we claim to represent. It's disgusting, really. Anything that draws attention to the scale of the horror and how low we've sunk is a good thing."

Not every musician shared David Gray's revulsion. Bob Singleton, who wrote the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur, which has been used extensively in the "War on Terror," acknowledged in July that "if you blare the music loud enough for long enough, I guess it can become unbearable," but refused to accept that there were any circumstances under which playing music relentlessly at prisoners could be considered torture. "It's absolutely ludicrous," he wrote. "A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?"

Singleton was not the only artist to misunderstand how music could indeed constitute torture -- especially when used as part of a package of techniques specifically designed to "break" prisoners. Steve Asheim, Deicide's drummer, said, "If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I'd be like, 'Is this all you got? Come on.' I certainly don't believe in torturing people, but I don't believe that playing loud music is torture either."

Furthermore, other musicians have been positively enthusiastic about the use of their music. Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool, who have played to U.S. troops in Iraq, told Spin magazine, "People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down. I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that."

Fortunately, for those who understand that using music as part of a system of torture techniques is no laughing matter, the Zero dB initiative provides the most noticeable attempt to date to call a halt to its continued use. Christopher Cerf, who wrote the music for Sesame Street, was horrified to learn that the show's theme tune had been used in interrogations. "I wouldn't want my music to be a party to that," he said.

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine has been particularly outspoken in denouncing the use of music as torture. In 2006, he also spoke to Spin magazine, and explained, "The fact that our music has been co-opted in this barbaric way is really disgusting. If you're at all familiar with ideological teachings of the band and its support for human rights, that's really hard to stand." On this year's world tour, Rage Against the Machine regularly turned up on stage wearing hoods and Guantánamo-orange jumpsuits, and during a recent concert in San Francisco, Morello proposed taking revenge on President George W. Bush: "I suggest that they level Guantánamo Bay, but they keep one small cell and they put Bush in there ... and they blast some Rage Against the Machine."

And on December 11, just after the Zero dB initiative was announced, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails posted the following message on his blog:

It's difficult for me to imagine anything more profoundly insulting, demeaning and enraging than discovering music you've put your heart and soul into creating has been used for purposes of torture. If there are any legal options that can be realistically taken they will be aggressively pursued, with any potential monetary gains donated to human rights charities. Thank GOD this country has appeared to side with reason and we can put the Bush administration's reign of power, greed, lawlessness and madness behind us.

Even James Hetfield of Metallica, who has generally been portrayed as a defender of the U.S. military's use of his band's music, has expressed reservations. In a radio interview in November 2004, he said that he was "proud" that the military had used his music (even though they "hadn't asked his permission or paid him royalties"), adding, "If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure," but he also acknowledged the reason that the military was using his music. "If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I'd go insane, too," he said. "I'd tell you anything you wanted to know."

While these musicians have at least spoken out, others -- including Eminem, AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Christina Aguilera, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- remain silent about the use of their work. Britney Spears' views are also unknown, but if her comments to CNN in September 2003 are anything to go by, it's unlikely that she would find fault with it. When Tucker Carlson said to her, "A lot of entertainers have come out against the war in Iraq. Have you?" Britney replied, "Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens." Perhaps she should speak to Pamela Anderson, who recently posted a simple message to Barack Obama on her blog: "Please Shut down Guantánamo Bay -- figure it out -- make amends/stop torture -- it's time for peaceful solutions."