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

By Tobias Rapp

Part 3: 'Kids in the US Pay Money for That'

Pop has great emancipating power, but there is also a long tradition of rebellious styles of music that are constantly flirting with torture, music made to grate on the nerves of parents.

As it happens, many a rock song is just as likely to end up in Guantanamo as being performed on a stage at a Live Aid concert -- Bono Vox and all Rock against the Radical Right ventures notwithstanding.

"I can't imagine it's that bad," says Stevie Benton, bassist with the nu metal band Drowning Pool. "Listening to loud music for a few yours -- kids in the US pay money for that."

Metallica Singer: 'I Take It as an Honor'

The American band Metallica, founded in Los Angeles in 1981 and still one of the world's best metal bands, doesn't side with the activists, either. In interviews, lead singer James Hetfield has even said that he was pleased to hear that his music was being used to torture prisoners.

"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," he says. "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."

There is probably a dose of patriotism behind his remarks. Hetfield sees himself as someone who is helping American troops defeat the enemy. But they also reflect a peculiar form of pride in his craft. "We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music forever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?" he said. "Part of me is proud because they chose Metallica!"

In fact, metal, more than other styles of music, is a direct product of a young man's hell, music that tells of the anguish and pain of being a young man. For many fans, going to metal concerts is also a way of proving to themselves that they can stand the music, no matter how jarring. In interrogations, the tables are turned, and prisoners are forcibly taken beyond the limits of the endurable.

There are also technical developments in the pop music of the last 30 years that have made it suitable for use in interrogation cells in the first place. Take, for example, the obsessive efforts of sound engineers to extract every last bit of the frequencies using sophisticated studio techniques.

And in the fringe zones of pop culture, such as industrial music, bands like Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV were already experimenting, back in the 1980s, with the idea that music can also express the dark side of power and violence.

"When you go to a concert or a club, you're looking for loud music and flashing lights. You want to be transported into ecstasy. We experienced exactly the same thing, except that it was turned on its head," says Ahmed. "You could call it black ecstasy."

Life after Guantanamo

In 2004, after more than two years, Ahmed was released from Guantanamo into a world in which music is everywhere, in every commercial, in every shop and in every taxicab. But Ahmed says that it doesn't bother him.

He says that he saw many people who almost went insane, people in the camp who would bang their heads against the wall and try to kill themselves when they were brought back from the interrogations. When Ahmed returned to the United Kingdom, a psychologist told him that he was probably lucky to be so young.

Ahmed now lives the curious life of a former Guantanamo prisoner. He has started a family with his current wife, a former schoolmate whom he married shortly after his return home. He rarely has work in Tipton, where unemployment is high. Life will become more difficult for the couple when Ahmed's wife gives birth in February and will no longer be able to work. She now has a job with the city administration.

An enormous multimedia system stands in the couple's living room, which Ahmed bought with the money he earned working on "Road to Guantanamo." When he goes on the Internet he uses the large flat-screen TV on the wall as his monitor. He uses Facebook to stay in touch with other ex-prisoners. He says that a former Guantanamo guard recently contacted him through Facebook and wrote that he wanted to apologize. The two men went to a restaurant together.

A shelf in Ahmed's apartment contains a Koran and a few old cassettes with recordings of prayers. He doesn't own a single CD.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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