The Wrong Note
How Western pop music is being used as ‘touchless torture’ by the American military
When I was a boy, my mother and I took long drives to visit my grandmother. During the nearly six-hour trip between New York and Manchester, Vermont, we engaged in unconventional warfare. This was the 1970s, so the ordnance consisted of 8-track tapes. We both maintained an arsenal of about ten cassettes, chosen for their ability to annoy, dispirit, terrorize and – as per US Army Field Manual 34-52 – ‘highlight the futility’ of the opponent’s ‘situation’, and we each had a ‘nuclear option’, reserved for when previous salvoes had managed only to incur mere irritation. Mine was The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer (1974), a double-LP hits collection; hers was the original cast soundtrack of A Chorus Line (1975).
Somewhere around the middle of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ my mother would begin to shriek, swerve and claw at the tape deck. My moment of total capitulation would occur, invariably, during ‘Dance: Ten: Looks: Three’, whose refrain concludes, ‘Tits and ass/Can change your life/They sure changed mine!’ Beyond the SoCal banality of Mike Love’s lyrics, my mother was rendered apoplectic by the whiney falsetto of The Beach Boys’ vocals, which she condemned as ‘gay’. If only I’d known more at the time about Broadway musicals. But then, I was too young to appreciate irony.
I was old enough, however, to appreciate music’s potential for causing extreme psychological distress, particularly when played repetitively (8-tracks, some may recall, looped endlessly) in close quarters by a tormentor whose culture you find wholly alien and who has absolute power to regulate the relief of your bowels and bladder. Hence it was unsurprising (though a source of Pavlovian revulsion) to learn that US interrogators, soldiers and military police, are using music as ‘touchless torture’ on detainees at Guantánamo Bay, in Iraqi and Afghani prisons, and at CIA ‘black sites’ around the globe.
As reported by the BBC, the Guardian, the Associated Press, Newsweek, The Nation, Mother Jones, SPIN and others (while mocked by right-wing columnists from the Chicago Tribune and The New York Sun), Western pop music has been employed to disorient, ‘prolong capture shock’ and ‘break’ detainees into confession, often through a strategic mixture of high volume, repetition and cultural offensiveness. Shafiq Rasul, of the ‘Tipton Three’ – British Muslims detained in Guantánamo for over two years after being captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan – tells of being short-shackled to the floor in a dark cell while Eminem’s ‘Kim’ (2000) and pounding heavy metal played incessantly for hours, augmented by strobe lights. The Road to Guantánamo (2006), the film that re-creates the Tipton Three’s experience, dramatizes the technique to terrifying effect.
For Vanity Fair, Donovan Webster tracked down Haj Ali in February 2005 – purportedly Abu Ghraib’s iconic man in the pointy black hood, forced to stand on a box for hours with electrical wires attached to his hands in the posture of a crucified Klansman – and discovered that, on another occasion, Ali was subjected to an excruciatingly loud loop of David Gray’s ‘Babylon’ (1999) while hooded, naked and chained to his cell wall. When Webster played the song for Ali on his iPod, the former prisoner tore the headphones from his ears and sobbed violently. (Gray, unlike most artists whose music is being used to break detainees, has spoken out against the practice and is considering legal action with the aid of the human-rights organization Reprieve.) Other freed detainees give similar accounts, and US interrogators and government investigations have corroborated the use of loud, relentless Western music to coerce information from ideologically hostile and mistakenly imprisoned subjects alike.
From interviews with US soldiers and army prison guards Justine Sharrock compiled what she called ‘The Torture Playlist’ for Mother Jones in 2008. In addition to Eminem and Gray, Sharrock cited Dope’s ‘Die Motherfucker Die’ (2007), Deicide’s ‘Fuck Your God’ (2004), Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ (1984), Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade’ (1996), Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty’ (2002), Neil Diamond’s ‘America’ (1980), the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ (1977), Barney the purple dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’ (1992) and the Meow Mix cat food jingle (1970), among others, as well as those perennial chartbusters of tank battalions and torture chambers, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ (1991) and Drowning Pool’s ‘Bodies’ (2007), with its chanted martial chorus: ‘Let the bodies hit the floor’.
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that soldiers and military police have a tin ear for lyrical content and artist intent: Eminem’s ‘White America’ (2002) speaks of pissing on the White House lawn; Deicide is militantly anti-Christian; Springsteen’s 1980s’ anthem (similarly misappropriated by Ronald Reagan’s election campaign of 1984) is the lament of an embittered, unemployed Vietnam veteran; and Rage Against the Machine is somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. That said, for their dubious purpose, Meow Mix and Barney are fiendishly well chosen. Perhaps this is because they were test-marketed on US military personnel in the long-standing Pentagon programme called ‘Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape’, which trains fighters at high risk of capture to endure torture at the hands of the enemy and which, as reported in The New Yorker in July 2005, inspired many of the abusive techniques recorded at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
Right-wing columnists and bloggers (as well as members of Metallica and Drowning Pool) have deemed the characterization of music as torture as relativistic hogwash, cheekily offering up their own lists of ‘mood music for jolting your jihadi’, as Mark Steyn termed it in The New York Sun in 2005, while, as ever, accusing ‘liberals’ of mollycoddling terrorists. And while, on the face of it, being subjected to ‘Stayin’ Alive’ on auto-repeat violates the civilian imagination less than the prospect of having one’s fingernails yanked out or one’s genitals electrocuted, the brayings of conservative dittoheads on this issue do nothing but confirm their small-mindedness. ‘There are but two powers in the world: the sword and the mind’, Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote. ‘In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.’ Perhaps the noisiest partisans of the American right only understand and respect physical force, as they used to say of Russians and now say of Arabs, but they would do well to remember that the body heals more quickly than the brain, and psychological scars last a lifetime. A few drops of water from an incipient rainfall can feel refreshing; a slow, steady series of drops to the forehead over many hours – the infamous Chinese water torture – can destroy one’s sanity.
Conservative commentators should also have the courage, as Christopher Hitchens did when he agreed to be waterboarded (for his August 2008 Vanity Fair article, ‘Believe Me It’s Torture’), to undergo the technique before dismissing it as harmless. But given that they take their cues from the chicken hawks still roosting in the White House, this seems unlikely. There’s too much money to be made polarizing their own populace and isolating their beloved country from the rest of the world.
And if the defence of detainee policy at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram is that these are the worst of the worst, dangerous terrorists who want to kill Americans, why then have so many of these purported demons been released without charge? Increase Mather, one of the earliest conservative Christian Americans, wrote in the wake of the Salem witch trials of 1692: ‘It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.’ He also wasn’t too keen on the use of ‘spectral evidence’ in trial proceedings. But, being a Harvard man, he’d be tarred as one of the ‘Northeastern élite’ today. To a looped medley of ‘Fuck Your God’ and ‘Die Motherfucker Die’ America is broadcasting its funeral dirge to the world, but the only ones listening are those who have no choice.
Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Continuum 33 1/3, 2003). From 1998–2003, he was editor-in-chief of Bookforum magazine. He is currently working on a book about surveillance in America.
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