The Pain of Listening: Using Music as a Weapon at Guantanamo

By Tobias Rapp

Part 2: Flooding the Senses

US interrogation specialists are pursuing the same goals in the war on terrorism. The method dates back to research conducted by American and Canadian government agencies during the Cold War. A 1963 CIA manual, "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation," describes a method of torture in which prisoners are either inundated with or deprived of sensory input.

It is believed that the US Army stopped using the method after the end of the Vietnam War, but the knowledge is still applied today. In a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), soldiers learn how to resist torture if they are taken prisoner.

No-Touch Torture

In the winter of 2001, the CIA commissioned a psychologist in the SERE program to develop interrogation methods for the "War on Terror." In the summer of 2002, George W. Bush authorized the resulting "special interrogation methods." An important component of these methods is to expose prisoners to loud music for long periods of time, often in combination with other ordeals, including restraining them in uncomfortable positions and exposing them to extreme temperatures and glaring lights. The method, which produces no visible traces, is also known as "no-touch torture."

It is still unclear whether a central authority controls the program. A declassified CIA document contains a few sentences that specify the volume levels to which a prisoner can be exposed, and for how long, but the rest of the document is blacked out.

There are anonymous reports by FBI agents who describe how prisoners were tortured, and Tony Lagouranis, a former interrogation specialist, has even written a book about it. According to Lagouranis, an interrogation room called the "Disco" was to be set up in a prison at the US airbase in Mosul, Iraq, in the spring of 2004. Lagouranis writes that the base commander "pointed to a shipping container right outside the wire of the prison and described what he wanted us to do. He obtained a strobe light from aviation and a boom box from a private. He asked the guards for CDs of the most awful death metal music they had. He gave us these tools and told us to clear the container out and get it ready for use as an interrogation chamber saying, with finality: I want to do this."

'It Takes Over Your Brain'

The specialists used these rooms to conduct their prisoner interrogations. Sometimes, says former British prisoner Ruhal Ahmed, they would come into the room and shout questions into his ear. But often no one came into the room, and the constant music only increased the sensation that the agony would never end.

"It's as if you had very bad migraines, and then someone shows up and yells at you -- and take that times a thousand," says Ahmed. "You can't concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You're pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side. And once you cross that line, there's no going back. I saw that threshold several times."

Suzanne Cusick, a professor at New York University, specializes in European music of the 17th century. For the past few years, however, she has studied the use of music in torture, and she has given many talks on the subject. She says she is constantly surprised by how casually the issue is treated and how the notion that music could be a means of torture is so readily dismissed -- and that there are those who seriously discuss which songs and styles are best suited for torture.

But why music and why not just loud noise? "Sometimes it was noise," says Cusick. "And music is available. Noise often is not. Furthermore, for some sects of Islam, listening to music is sinful, except under specific circumstances. And the circumstances are vocal music. Vocal music that is made to lead the listener to an apprehension of the divine. It's never instrumental music. Forcing them to listen to it is a kind of cultural insult. The music itself tells us a lot about the cultural preferences of American soldiers and contracters."

Britney as Torture

The list of songs used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo reads like a book about popular culture of the last 30 years.

There are triumphant songs, songs used to celebrate American victory and constantly rub in the notion that the prisoners were the defeated, songs like Queen's "We Are the Champions" or Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," which is still misunderstood as a salute to American greatness and self-certainty. The song "Babylon," by British soft-rocker David Gray, probably also fits into this category.

There are the torture songs, the Heavy Metal and Industrial music, like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" or "March of the Pigs," by Nine Inch Nails -- music deliberately selected to hurt the prisoners.

And there is the male-oriented, top-of-the-charts music, the country music, the mainstream rock and the hip hop -- music the soldiers listen to while on patrol, partly to drown out their surroundings. And because it's the kind of music they like to listen to, it doesn't bother them as much when they constantly hear it coming from the interrogation cells.

Finally, there is pop music, songs by artists like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears that were used for the purpose of sexual humiliation -- as a part of wider scenarios in which the prisoners were debased.

"The fact that our music has been co-opted in this barbaric way is really disgusting," Tom Morello, guitarist with the left-leaning band Rage Against the Machine, told the American music magazine Spin. "If you're at all familiar with the ideological leanings of the band and its support for human rights, that's really hard to stand."

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