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Torture chamber music

loudspeaker

By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine

David Gray has lambasted American interrogators for allegedly using his music to help extract information from internees in Iraq. Why might his music be chosen and what effect on prisoners is music meant to achieve?

This is not the first we've heard of familiar recordings being used in the "war on terror" - in 2003, Rick Hoffman, a veteran of US psy-ops - "psychological operations" - talked to the BBC about the use of tunes from Sesame Street and Barney The Dinosaur to break the will of Iraqi captives.

And recent reports have added Eminem, the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond to the roster reluctantly referred to by David Gray as "Guantanamo Greatest Hits". But what is it that makes one song more likely than another to be played on a maximum volume loop at terrorist suspects?

From Jericho to Waco

Music has long been used by armed forces, from the trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho in the Book Of Joshua through the fifes and drums of Renaissance battlefields. Its role in interrogations is more recent.

Zach de la Rocha and David Gray
Rage Against The Machine and David Gray have both protested against the use of their music

In his book on experimental intelligence practices, The Men Who Stare At Goats, journalist Jon Ronson traces the technique's origins to a 1970s military manual recommending loudspeakers playing "indigenous music and words of peace" as a means of demotivating America's enemies - a strategy which has since left behind its New Age roots for today's sonic onslaughts.

The most high-profile examples include 1989's Operation Just Cause when American troops surrounded the Panama papal nunciature and tried to encourage General Noriega to surrender by blasting music - including, according to the Times, Rick Astley - and the 1993 armed siege at David Koresh's compound near Waco, where the sped-up and distorted music included Tibetan chants until the FBI received a letter of complaint from the Dalai Lama.

More recently, American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has seen former detainees describing music being used at closer quarters as an interrogative technique.

'Torture lite'

By its very nature, the choice of music played during interrogations is much more patchily documented. New York journalist Justine Sharrock has interviewed returning US soldiers about their everyday experiences. These accounts go against any assumption that the songs are chosen by military top brass - the impression is one of individual recruits choosing music from their own collections to play to detainees according to a schedule of "environmental manipulation". This last, also described as "environment down", "no touch torture" and "torture lite", describes attempts to manipulate suspects without physical contact as it is normally understood.

There are two problems with this kind of extreme technique. Firstly, you don't necessarily get the truth when people will say anything to make you stop, which can lead to serious operational problems later. And secondly, you create hostility, anger and frustration and create more and more terrorists.
Former Met Police commander Bob Milton

This fits with the apparent inconsistencies and incongruities, with much of the hip-hop and metal reflecting the cultural background of young Americans and patriotic tunes like Neil Diamond's America being unsurprising favourites among soldiers. Others, like Christina Aguilera, are in line with psy-ops' alleged concept of material that will be "culturally offensive" to pious detainees. Some, like the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive reflect, Sharrock believes, a kind of black humour, and the apparently anodyne numbers like Barney The Dinosaur singing I Love You and the Miaow Mix advert theme are chosen as "futility music" - noise which will rapidly become unbearable when looped.

MUSIC ALLEGEDLY USED
White America - Eminem
Barney The Dinosaur theme
Enter Sandman - Metallica
Meow Mix advert theme
Sesame Street theme
Babylon - David Gray
Stayin' Alive- The Bee Gees
American Pie - Don McLean
Dirrty - Christina Aguilera feat. Redman
Source: Mother Jones magazine

Bob Ayers, security expert at Chatham House, says the aim of these techniques is to "destabilise and disorient the suspect in a way that doesn't physically harm the organism. It's not like hearing a Bach symphony, where you can flow along with the music. The idea is to have no variation: the same sounds over and over again."

Dr Michael Peel of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture adds: "Music is used to make the detainee aware that he has no control over what's going on in any of his senses. Deprivation of normal sensory stimulation and lack of control over one's environment is a disempowerment that eventually dehumanises people."

Unusual - and cruel?

In this sense, the choice of any individual track quickly becomes irrelevant: the desired effect is achieved through volume and repetition and the normal connotations - from lyrics or cultural associations - mean very little.

In the case of David Gray, detainee Haj Ali told the Daily Mirror in 2005 that it was not a whole song that he was played, but just the title phrase: "Babylon... Babylon... Babylon... over and over again. It was so loud I thought my head would burst. It went on for a day and a night."

And a Council Of Europe report on Afghanistan revealed that the music, by this stage just noise in itself, is mixed with other sounds including "thunder, planes taking off, cackling laughter and horror sounds that amounted to a 'perpetual nightmare'."

Menachem Begin
I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them - if they signed - uninterrupted sleep!
Menachem Begin, former Israeli PM and KGB torture victim

Those who are examining these practices, then, are not concerned with any individual song - or with the use of music in itself. Bodies like the Red Cross attempt to scrutinise individual cases to see whether noise - in conjunction with other techniques - is causing sleep deprivation or other forms of mental cruelty. The treatment may well be unusual, but the question of whether it's cruel remains a vexed one.

'This is not about music'

The debate continues over where the techniques cross a line from making a subject more likely to talk, to forms of abuse which are or could be prohibited under international conventions.

"It's important to appreciate that this is not about 'music' in any normal sense," says Amnesty International's Sara MacNeice, "but more like an aural assault on a person designed to intimidate, disorientate and eventually break down a prisoner. Whether it's the use of loud music, extremes of heat or light, painful 'stress' positions or simulations of drowning, these techniques are cruel and inhuman and strictly forbidden under international law."

AND FINALLY...
Ann Curry: US forces in Iraq are using what some are calling a cruel and unusual tool to break the resistance of Iraqi POWs, and trust me, a lot of parents would agree. Some prisoners are being forced to listen to Barney, the purple dinosaur, sing the "I love you" song for 24 straight hours... Four minutes past the hour. Katie, sing it with me.
Katie Couric: I'd rather go through water torture, actually, than listen to that.
NBC News' Today, 19 May 2003

One perhaps odd effect of stories about well-known tunes being played in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq is that this debate is at times given a trivial spin. As technology and new thinking create new military practices, the conventions of warfare evolve with them.

And so when a familiar ditty is reported as used in this context, it becomes something that can prompt both a light-hearted news item (see quotebox, above), and genuine questions about contraventions of international law.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Trying to detract from our own current news re: MoD awards to mistreated Iraqis by GB Troops? I guess Mr. Gray would like to sit them in a comfy chair and feed them endless cups of tea?
Barb W., Virginia, US

To what length of cruelty can we go! To what lengths are we able to go in dehumanizing other human beings and forget that there is an all seeing eye watching our every move! This is not evolution but devolution of mankind! Shocking!
Elisabeth van den Broek, Reijkjavik

In America, this practice is generally seen as harmless mischief. Here is an example of how this form of torture is portrayed in the American press: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1290449
Thomas Prindiville Higgins, San Jose, California, US

Future generations, like mine, will be required to celebrate "freedom" and the men and women who won it for us. The more I hear, the harder it gets.
Nic, Nottingham

One of the criteria for unacceptable torture is that it causes permanent damage to the victim. Noise and music that is too loud can cause permanent hearing loss, as airport ground crew members and rock concert attendees and performers such as The Who's Pete Townshend can testify.
George Vogt, Cypress, Texas

Did the walls of Jericho really get destroyed by playing trumpets at them? Please don't use the Bible as a historical source - we're not all Christian, after all.
Joseph Ball, Nuneaton, England

There's something desperately wrong with a society which can use the phrase "torture lite" like it's a soft drink. I'm ashamed to be human.
T Talbot

It's hard to believe that the rest of the world, particularly Europe, haven't put their foot down on these practices. Time and again we have heard governments and politicians condemn the use of 'soft torture' techniques but so far with no action to back up the rhetoric. Any kind of torture is despicable and if we were talking about this being used by another country, such as Iran or North Korea, the UK, USA and Europe would be the first to demand action.
Karl, Bath, UK


SEE ALSO
Gray's warning on 'torture' music
04 Jul 08 |  Entertainment
Rendition: Tales of torture
07 Dec 05 |  Americas
Sesame Street breaks Iraqi POWs
20 May 03 |  Middle East

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