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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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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 earsplitting 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 "from the end of 2003 they introduced the music, and it became even worse. Before that, you could try and focus on something else. 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 groundbreaking 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 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 along the lines of, "If I had to listen to David Gray's ‘Babylon'/the theme tune from Barney (the purple dinosaur)/Christina Aguilera, I'd be crying ‘torture' too." But the truth, sadly, 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," Hadsell 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:

 
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