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A History of Music Torture in the War on Terror

From Britney to Barney, any music can drive you mad if it's played enough. And unlike with physical torture, you can't mentally prepare yourself.

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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 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, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading," 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."

Vance, who was held at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, explained that he was routinely subjected to sleep deprivation, taken for interrogation in the middle of the night and held in a cell that was permanently lit with fluorescent lights. He added, "At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor." Speaking to the Associated Press last week, he said that the use of music as torture "can make innocent men go mad," and added more about the use of music during his imprisonment, stating that he was "locked in an overcooled 9-foot-by-9-foot cell that had a speaker with a metal grate over it. Two large speakers stood in the hallway outside." The music, he said, "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 said the experience "sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you're in an environment like that."

After his release, Vance said he planned to sue Rumsfeld on the basis that his constitutional rights had been violated, and he noted, "Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had." He added that he had written a letter to the camp's commander "stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves."

Musicians Take Action

Last week, Reprieve launched a new initiative, Zero dB (Against Music Torture), aimed at encouraging musicians to take a stand against the use of their music as torture instruments. This is not the first time that musicians have been encouraged to speak out. In June, Clive 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 openly condemned 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."

In a subsequent interview with the BBC, Gray complained that the only part of the torture music story that got noticed was its "novelty aspect" -- which he compared to Guantánamo['s] Greatest Hits -- and then delivered another powerful indictment of the misappropriation of his and other artists' music.

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