[Ppnews] A History of Music Torture in the War on Terror

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 15 12:43:06 EST 2008


December 15, 2008

A History of Music Torture in the War on Terror

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 “
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 
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 
News in November 2005, as part of a 
ground-breaking report into the use of 
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 
“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 Sgt. 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 
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 
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 the legal action charity 
<http://www.reprieve.org.uk/>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 Meatloaf and Aerosmith over 
and over. I hated that. They also played 2Pac, 
“All Eyez On Me,” all night and all day 
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 
 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 
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, 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 by fluorescent lights. He added, 
“At most hours, heavy metal or country music 
blared in the corridor.” Speaking to the 
Press last week, he explained 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 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.”

After his release, Vance stated that he planned 
to sue former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 
on the basis that his constitutional rights had 
been violated, and 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, 
<http://www.zerodb.org/>Zero dB (against music 
torture), aimed at encouraging musicians to take 
a stand against the use of their music as 
torture. This is not the first time that 
musicians have been encouraged to speak out. In 
June, Clive Stafford Smith raised the issue in 
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 
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. “What we’re talking 
about here is people in a darkened room, 
physically inhibited by handcuffs, bags over 
their heads and music blaring at them for 24 
hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “That 
is torture. That is nothing but torture. It 
doesn’t matter what the music is -- it could be 
Tchaikovsky’s finest or it could be Barney the 
Dinosaur. It really doesn’t matter, it’s going to 
drive you completely nuts.” He added, “No-one 
wants to even think about it or discuss the fact 
that we’ve gone above and beyond all legal process and we’re torturing people.”

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 an op-ed for the 
Angeles Times in July that “if you blare the 
music loud enough for long enough, I guess it can 
become unbearable,” but refused to accept either 
that songwriters can legitimately have any say 
about how their music is used, or 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?” He added, “The idea 
that repeating a song will drive someone over the 
brink of emotional stability, or cause them to 
act counter to their own nature, makes music into 
something like voodoo, which it is not.”

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, “These guys are not a bunch of 
high school kids. They are warriors, and they're 
trained to resist torture. They're expecting to 
be burned with torches and beaten and have their 
bones broken. 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 
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 
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”). “For me, the lyrics are a 
form of expression, a freedom to express my 
insanity,” he explained, adding, “If the Iraqis 
aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part 
of their exposure.” Hetfield laughed off claims 
that music could be used for torture, saying, 
“We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our 
loved ones with this music for ever. Why should 
the Iraqis be any different?” However, he also 
acknowledged the reason that the military was 
using his music. “It's the relentlessness of the 
music,” he said. “It's completely relentless. If 
I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in 
a row, I'd go insane, too. 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 
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 
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.”

Andy Worthington is a British historian, and the 
author of 
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 
Detainees in America's Illegal Prison' (published 
by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: 
He can be reached at: 
<mailto:andy at andyworthington.co.uk>andy at andyworthington.co.uk

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