Music as Torture

Also on December 10, the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the British human rights organization, Reprieve, which, according to the Telegraph, represents 33 clients at Guantanamo Bay, launched the Zero dB initiative to end the use of music as torture.

The campaign urges supporters to help bring to an end the “brutal practice of music torture”. It will feature minutes of silence during concerts and festivals while a petition will call on governments and the UN to uphold their obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture.

America’s use of torture in the “war on terror” is outrageous, horrifying and disgusting in all it’s forms.  It’s particularly outrageous that the torturers can just co-opt an artist’s music for their sick game. Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of is one of the songs that has been used, and Tom Morello has been speaking out on the issue for some time, as noted by Andy Worthington in the Huffington Post:

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.”

David Gray, who’s song Babylon has been used in torture has also been in the forefront against the use of music as torture, saying in the Telegraph:

“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,” singer-songwriter David Gray has said of the practice.

“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.”

In fact, the theme from Barney has been used to torture, as well as the theme from Sesame Street.

Christopher Cerf, who wrote music for Sesame Street, told the Associated Press he was horrified to learn songs from the children’s show were used in interrogations. “I wouldn’t want my music to be a party to that.”

Trent Reznor has also spoken out on the Nine Inch Nails 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.

Trent Reznor

There have been a few musicians, including Steve Asheim of Deicide, Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool and Jamie Hetfeld of Metallica who actually approve of the use of their music in torture; and too much apathy from the rest.

I think there are two problems that contribute to the lack of outcry from some, and outright approval or acquiescence of other musicians, whose music is being used to break people.  One, that music’s use as torture is viewed as “torture light.” The other, the belief that all, or at least most, of those locked up at places like Guantanamo are guilty and “the worse of the worse.”

Neither is true, and what our government is doing in our name is far more sinister than some people are willing to believe (which is why we need a thorough, independent, investigation once President Obama puts an end to all of this, with those responsible at the top of the Bush administration being held accountable, as Amnesty International is calling for)

As noted in a June 19 Guardian article, “the creator of Barney’s song I Love You, Bob Singleton, admits he ‘just laughed’ when he heard it was being used by interrogators”.

I would argue even the fact that Tom Morello can say repeatedly on stage, as quoted in the Huffington Post article and others, “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,” highlights the problem.  Not that I probably didn’t laugh myself if he said it at the Get Out the Vote concert, and not that I haven’t heard similar from friends or people coming up to our Amnesty table (when I’ll say, of course as a member of AI, I oppose torture, or the death penalty, in all cases. . .). 

I do think the reason Tom’s fans, including, probably me, so easily laugh, however, is because we’re not taking seriously the idea that playing Rage Against the Machine music at a loud volume, non-stop would, in fact, torture and break President Bush. I also question, what would happen if Tom were to use some other suggestion of torture repeatedly each night, say of water boarding Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.  In spite of the fact water boarding is also claimed to be “torture light,” I suspect the FBI might pay Tom a little visit (and frankly, would worry we may eventually need to file a habeas corpus petition for Tom).

Even for some of us who get that heavy metal or rap played loud all day and night could drive someone mad, the idea that something mellow like David Gray’s Babylon (or the Sesame Street or Barney themes) could have the same effect may sound crazy, or can it really drive you crazy?

Yet, as described in Vanity Fair, and quoted in the Dec. 26, 2005 (Dec. 7 online) edition of The Nation:

In a gripping Vanity Fair article, Donovan Webster searched for and found “the man in the hood” from the macabre Abu Ghraib photos. Haj Ali told Webster of being hooded, stripped, handcuffed to his cell and bombarded with a looped sample of David Gray’s “Babylon.” It was so loud, he said, “I thought my head would burst.” Webster then cued up “Babylon” on his iPod and played it for Haj Ali to confirm the song. Ali ripped the earphones off his head, and started crying. “He didn’t just well up with tears,” Webster later told me. “He broke down sobbing.”

Released former Guantanamo detainee Rahul Ahmed, whose case is documented in the film The Road to Guantanamo. talks about the use of music in torture in this clip from Reprieve:

Consider this comment in the Huffington Post by Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed:

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.”

Of course, breaking down prisoners and causing them to lose their mind is exactly what these psychological techniques developed by the CIA were meant to do, as chronicled by Alfred W. McCoy on numerous occasions, including a May 29, 2004 edition of CounterPunch.

As the Dec. 2005 Nation article points out, the British also used loud noise against Irish detainees in the early 1970’s. “This was one of the so-called Five Techniques, scientifically developed interrogation practices that also included wall-standing, hooding, sleep deprivation and withholding of food and drink.”

 In his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, John Conroy describes the “absolute” and “unceasing” noise that the Irishmen who were first subjected to the Five Techniques endured. While the other four techniques were clearly terrifying, the noise was “an assault of such ferocity that many of the men now recall it as the worst part of the ordeal.”

The Nation article continues the parallel:

Ex-interrogators at Guantánamo’s Camp Delta described their methods to the New York Times. These included shackling detainees to the floor, cranking up the air-conditioning and forcing them to endure strobe lights with rock and rap music playing at mind-numbing volumes for unbearably long sessions. “It fried them,” one said. Another admitted that detainees returned “very wobbly. They came back to their cells and were just completely out of it.”

This is when the mind begins its rebellion against the body. After you end up “wobbly” or “fried,” a severe post-traumatic stress disorder commonly results. Patrick Shivers, one of the Irish victims of the Five Techniques, developed a lasting and severe hypersensitivity to noise to the point where he was “disturbed by the sound of a comb placed on a shelf in his bathroom.”

Ah, but these techniques are only being used against terrorists, the worse of the worse, and certainly not Americans, right?  While it still would not be OK, or effective, the fact is – wrong.  The Huffington Post cites “Donald Vance, a U.S. military contractor in Iraq, who was subjected to music torture for 76 days in 2006”:

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.”

Worse of the worse?  Some statistics from Amnesty International’s fact sheet on Guantanamo:  55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed hostile acts against the United States, 44% of the detainees have no definitive connection with Al Qaeda, 18% have no definitive connection with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, with only 8% (typo corrected) being characterized as al Qaeda fighters.  Prisoners are bought, with the US offering large bounties for suspected terrorists: 66% of detainees were captured by Pakistani authorities and turned over to U.S. control, 20% were captured by Northern Alliance/Afghan authorities and turned over to U.S. control, with only 8% being captured by U.S. authorities and 3% by other coalition forces.

Torture is also not effective and puts our own troops at risk, as noted in the Washington Post by Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, by building a rapport with the Guantanamo suspects and refusing to take part in torture.

That music has been, and maybe still is, being used as a torture method by the U.S. government is deeply disturbing.  Musicians whose work is being used in this twisted way should be outraged and speak out against it ever happening again.

Not in our name!  I hear this “Well, but what can we do?” from people when it finally starts to dawn on them what we’re doing.  Is this still America?  Is this still a democracy?  We speak out! Amnesty International, and the prisoners of conscience we defend, have made it a point of speaking out even in countries that are not alleged democracies.

Yes, I have hope now that we have elected President Obama that this will all soon end.  There must be accountability, too; along with building a consensus in America that this will never happen again.  I think those of us who believe in justice will have to push to make this happen, as moderate Democrats tend to want to not make waves.  This is too important to let pass and sweep under the rug.

America should stand for justice. It’s precisely because I love America that I find this all so appalling. 



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