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

By Tobias Rapp

For years, US interrogators at Guantanamo used painfully loud music on prisoners at Camp Delta. Rock musicians like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and civil rights organization are demanding an investigation into the practice.

In May 2003, a military policeman came to Ruhal Ahmed's cell in Camp Delta at the military prison in Guantanamo and took him to an interrogation room. There, he was forced to squat while the M.P. tied his leg irons to a ring set in the floor. Then his hands were placed behind his back so that his handcuffs could also be attached to the floor ring. In this "stress position," the prisoner is unable to sit, stand or kneel, and can only crouch in an intermediate position that quickly causes cramping. Ahmed was familiar with this treatment, which was part of the "standard operating procedure" used to prepare prisoners for interrogation.

Ahmed had been in Guantanamo for more than a year. For weeks, the interrogators had been asking him the same question, again and again: What were he and two of his friends, who were captured with him, doing in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001? All three men are British Muslims. Ahmed's family originally immigrated to Great Britain from what is now Bangladesh. The men were referred to as the "Tipton Three," a reference to the small city in the British Midlands where they were from. On this particular day, there was also a boom box in the small, eight-square-meter (86-square-foot) interrogation cell. The soldier inserted a CD by rapper Eminem, turned up the volume and left.

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Photo Gallery: Torture with Metallica and Britney Spears

"I thought: What's going on now? Did he forget his boom box?" says Ahmed. "When he returned, I asked him: 'What's this about? Why are you playing Eminem?' He looked at me and said nothing."

The next time Ahmed was taken to the interrogation cell, the music was heavy metal instead of Eminem. The volume was earsplitting and the music was played for hours, even entire days. Sometimes they also stuck a stroboscope in front of his face. The cell was dark and he could see nothing but the flashing lights in his eyes. The interrogators also turned down the temperature on the air-conditioning, forcing Ahmed to endure hours of the music and flashing lights in an ice-cold room. He wasn't permitted to use the bathroom and was left to urinate or defecate in his pants. The shackles caused his legs to swell up while the deafening music continued incessantly.

A Journey that Went Terribly Wrong

Ahmed, now 28, is back at home in Tipton, a small city near Birmingham. He has a short, trimmed beard, wears a tracksuit and speaks with a northern English accent. His wife, who is pregnant, opens the door of their apartment in a working-class neighborhood, where their two-year-old daughter is running around. Two of Ahmed's younger brothers also live in the house.

He was released in March 2004, after spending more than two years in the American military prison. Director Michael Winterbottom's award-winning film "Road to Guantanamo" is based on the experiences of the Tipton Three -- and a journey that went terribly wrong.

The three friends had traveled to Pakistan to attend a wedding in September 2001. Ahmed was 20 at the time. With a thirst for adventure, they naively crossed the border into Afghanistan, even though the "War on Terror" was already in the works. As they tried to return to Pakistan with a group of Taliban, fighters with the Northern Alliance arrested the three men, and they were eventually turned over to the Americans. They arrived in Guantanamo in early 2002.

"When I tell people that music can be torture, they look at me and think I must have a screw loose. How can art, which gives people so much pleasure, be torture? But it's true. You can handle normal torture, but not music torture. I told them everything they wanted to hear: that I had met bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and that I knew what their plans were. But I just said it to make them stop."

In Guantanamo, Afghanistan and in Iraq, and in other American secret prisons, military and intelligence personnel tortured terrorism suspects. Their methods included water-boarding and sleep deprivation, as well as loud music. Prisoners were strung up by their wrists for days while being blasted with music by artists like Dr. Dre. They were bound, with headphones placed on their heads, and forced to listen to Meat Loaf for hours. They were locked into wooden boxes and forced to endure "Saturday Night Fever" by the Bee Gees for entire nights at a time. Ironically music, the art form that has often been used to change the world and -- at events like Woodstock, Live Aid and Germany's Rock Against the Far Right -- has sometimes succeeded, was turned into a weapon in the war against terrorism.

Artists Fight Back

Some musicians have now sharply criticized the practice, including the British trip-hoppers Massive Attack, American industrial rock musician Trent Reznor and country star Rosanne Cash. They are demanding that pop not be used as a weapon, and they want to know how their music is being used in American prisons.

British and American organizations are supporting the musicians' efforts. The National Security Archive, an American civil rights organization that fights the US government's document classification policies, has filed Freedom of Information Act petitions requesting the declassification of secret government documents on the use of music for interrogation. The petition requests the release of documents from 11 government institutions in which the following terms appear: "AC/DC, Aerosmith, the 'Barney & Friends' song, The Bee Gees, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, David Gray, Deicide, Don McLean, Dope, Dr. Dre, Drowning Pool, Eminem, Hed P. E., James Taylor, Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson, Matchbox Twenty, Meat Loaf, the 'Meow Mix' jingle (an ad for cat food), Metallica, Neil Diamond, Nine Inch Nails, Pink, Prince, Queen, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Redman, Saliva, the 'Sesame Street' music, Stanley Brothers, the Star Spangled Banner, Tupac Shakur."

Employees at the National Security Archive spent weeks of research to develop the list, and it could take several more weeks before a decision is reached on the petitions. It could take months or even years for the documents to be declassified.

A Shadowy World

Up until now, the secret prisons operated by the CIA and US military have been part of a shadowy world that can only be reconstructed through the painstaking analysis of documents and statements. The effort is also aimed at tracking chains of command and learning more about the system of secret prisons set up by the administration of former US President George W. Bush. The public is the activists' most important ally in this struggle. And the most effective way to win over the public is with the support of artists.

The use of a music as a weapon isn't anything new. For instance, for the past few years authorities at the main railway station in Hamburg have used piped-in classical music to drive away junkies from the plaza in front of the station.

When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, fleeing from US troops in 1989, took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, the soldiers bombarded the building for days with hard rock and other music.

And in 1993, when the FBI was preparing to storm a ranch near Waco, Texas, where members of a sect had barricaded themselves in their compound, the agents blared the Nancy Sinatra hit "These Boots Were Made For Walking" from loudspeakers. The purpose was simple: to wear down the besieged sect members.

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