Welcome to 'the disco'

For US interrogators seeking to disorientate and break Iraqi prisoners it's 'torture lite' - rock music played at excruciating volumes. But while the song choices may sometimes verge on the unintentionally funny, this appropriation of music by the military is anything but a joke

Guantanamo Bay

US army public affairs soldiers at the Northeast Gate, the only passage in the fenceline between Cuba and the US naval station at Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

According to US military authorities, it was God himself who first wrote the strategy of "torture by music" into the field manual - by turning the amplifier up to 11 on the enemy. "Joshua's army used horns to strike fear into the hearts of the people of Jericho," retired US Air Force Lt-Col Dan Kuehl told the St Petersburg Times. "His men might not have been able to break down literal walls with their trumpets, but the noise eroded the enemy's courage." Kuehl, who teaches psychological operations (or psyops) at Fort McNair's National Defense University in Washington DC, added, "Maybe those psychological walls were what really crumbled."

It is not clear whether God would approve of the current US playlist: the number one slot is taken by the death metal band Deicide, whose track Fuck Your God is played at prisoners in Iraq. That said, the proponents of torture by music doubtless think they have come a long way since the early 1990s, when the FBI blasted loud music at the Branch Davidians during the Waco siege in Texas. The repertoire then included Sing-Along With Mitch Miller Christmas carols, an Andy Williams album and These Boots Are Made for Walking by Nancy Sinatra.

However unpleasant it may be to have such tunes blasted at your compound, bringing the music into an enclosed interrogation cell was a quantum leap in psyops. Nonetheless, in the strange lexicon of 21st-century America, the US military calls this "torture lite". Torture is apparently OK if it is not too "heavy". Metallica's Enter Sandman has been played at cacophonous levels for hours on end in Guantánamo Bay and at a detention centre on the Iraqi-Syrian border. One Iraqi prisoner said it was done at "an unidentified location called 'the disco'".

Unfortunately, some artists are not offended by their work being used to torture. "If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure," James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica, has said. As for his music being torture, he laughed: "We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?" Such posturing may go with the territory for an artist of the Metallica genre, so there is no need to speculate about whether Hetfield is being naive or wilfully ignorant. But no sane person voluntarily plays a single tune at earsplitting volume, over and over, 24 hours a day, and expects to stay sane.

Despite this, to date, the Pentagon's semanticists have achieved their purpose, and many people think that torture by music is little more than a rather irritating enforced encounter with someone else's iPod. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who is still held in Guantánamo Bay, knows a bit about such torture. The CIA rendered him to Morocco, where his torturers repeatedly took a razor blade to his penis throughout an 18-month ordeal.

When I later sat across from him in the cell, he described how psyops methods were worse than this. He could anticipate physical pain, he said, and know that it would eventually end. But the experience of slipping into madness as a result of torture by music was something quite different.

"Imagine you are given a choice," he said. "Lose your sight or lose your mind." While having your eyes gouged out would be horrendous, there is little doubt which you would choose. Mohamed remains in Guantánamo. The US military will decide, probably within two
weeks, whether to go forward with a military commission, based on "evidence" that was tortured out of him.

To those who have the misfortune to study torture, all this is old hat. Members of the IRA interned in Northern Ireland in the 1970s recall the use of loud noise, piped into their cells, as the worst aspect of their ordeal. One Guantánamo interrogator blithely estimated that it would take about four days to "break" someone, if the interrogation sessions were interspersed with strobe lights and loud music. "Break" is another euphemism that is bandied about among torturers, as if "breaking" a person was some kind of psychological truth serum. Of course, the "results" you get from a "broken" prisoner have little to do with truth.

Beyond pure barbarism, there are various reasons why music torture fails in its ambition. As ever in this "war on terror", there is a disconnect between the purported goal of the US forces ("actionable intelligence") and the methods used to achieve it. An order comes down from on high, from a Bush bureaucrat who has a bright idea, and it is left to soldiers in the field to use their imagination. How some bored soldiers came up with David Gray's song Babylon, played at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, defies analysis. Sometimes, people simply misunderstand lyrics: in 1984, Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA as a patriotic anthem to get himself re-elected, despite the song being about government betrayal of Vietnam veterans.

Sometimes the selections used are wryly appropriate for prisoners being held without trial for years on end: Queen's We are the Champions ("I've paid my dues/Time after time/I've done my sentence/But committed no crime") was a torturer's favourite at Camp Cropper in Iraq. Other songs unwittingly give voice to what could well be the prisoners' inner thoughts: Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name Of ("Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses ... /Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!") was used
at Guantánamo.

Inevitably, when poorly trained interrogators are encouraged to let their imaginations soar, they veer towards their own idiosyncratic perversions. One budding Emcee artfully mixed the sound of crying babies (which humans
seem hardwired to abhor) with a television commercial for Meow Mix cat food.

Ultimately, though, the most overused torture song is I Love You by Barney the Purple Dinosaur. On the face of it, the lyrics may seem deeply inappropriate: "I love you, you love me - we're a happy family./With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you,/Won't you say you love me too?", but anyone whose child watches the television programme will know how grating
it is. In the torture trade, this is called "futility music", designed to convince the prisoner of the futility of maintaining his position.

It is time that those musicians who oppose the use of music to torture fellow human beings made some noise - and they are beginning to. This year's Meltdown festival at London's South Bank, which Massive Attack are curating, has highlighted the issue of torture by music. Projections showing the horror of renditions and secret prisons will be used on their world tour.

When President Bush visited the UK at the weekend, we greeted him by playing the Barney the Purple Dinosaur theme tune. What next? Perhaps the release of a special compilation: we could call it Now That's What I Call Torture, President Bush's selection of eight songs he would take to a desert island, and blast it at him for all eternity.

'It's an issue that no one in the industry wants to deal with'

There is a clear reluctance within the record industry to discuss the use of music as torture. The Guardian attempted to contact artists whose songs have reportedly been used by the US military in detainment camps - a diverse group that includes metal bands Metallica, AC/DC, Drowning
Pool and Deicide, hip-hop superstar Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, British singer-songwriter David Gray and the makers of children's TV favourite Barney the Dinosaur. In most cases, inquiries were met with a polite but firm "no comment" from management and PR representatives, or calls were simply not returned.

"It's an issue that no one wants to deal with," says David Gray, one of the few artists willing to speak about the subject. "It's shocking that there isn't more of an outcry. I'd gladly sign up to a petition that says don't use my music, but it seems to be missing the point a bit."

Gray's music became associated with the torture debate after Haj Ali, the hooded man in the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs, told of being stripped, handcuffed and forced to listen to a looped sample of Babylon, at a volume so high he feared that his head would burst.

"The moral niceties of whether they're using my song or not are totally irrelevant," says Gray. "We are thinking below the level of the people we're supposed to oppose, and it goes against our entire history and everything we claim to represent. It's disgusting, really. Anything that draws attention to the scale of the horror and how low we've sunk is a good thing."

The singer wonders whether governments who use music as a torture technique without asking permission from the artists involved could face legal action. "In order to play something publicly, you have to have legal permission and you have to apply for that.

I wonder if the US government bothered, but I very much doubt it. Perhaps you could sue, but let's face it, they're outside the law on the whole thing anyway."

However, Gray's anger is far from a universal reaction. Steve Asheim, drummer for the death-metal band Deicide, questions whether music really counts as torture. "Look at it this way," he says. "These guys are not a bunch
of high school kids. They are warriors, and they're trained to resist torture. They're expecting to be burned with torches and beaten and have their bones broken. If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I'd be like, 'Is this all you got? Come on.' I certainly don't believe in torturing people, but I don't believe that playing loud music is torture either."

Deicide's Fuck Your God is said to be a favourite for military interrogators, and the song topped the infamous "torture playlist" compiled by the American investigative magazine Mother Jones. It is worth noting that the lyrics are in fact anti-Christian, just as Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Eminem's White America, also claimed as torture tracks, contain anti-establishment messages. But, as Asheim points out, "Most people who listen
to this kind of music don't give a shit about a political message. They just wanna rock."

Was the song specifically chosen for its sonic and cultural impact on detainees? Asheim doesn't think so. "I don't believe there's a room where they discuss what songs they can play to annoy the prisoners.

I think they just show up at work with whatever they're listening to at the time. There's no shortage of metal-heads in the army, that's for sure. These guys who are going into battle, they're not listening to Elton John beforehand."

Asheim's theory raises the question of how the apparently innocuous Barney the Dinosaur music made it into a field dominated by hip-hop and death metal. Barney's producers, HIT Entertainment, declined to comment for this article. However, the creator of Barney's song I Love You, Bob Singleton, admits he "just laughed" when he heard it was being used by interrogators.

"It seemed so ludicrous that something totally innocuous for children could threaten the mental state of an adult," he says. "I would rate the annoyance factor to be about equal with hearing my neighbour's leaf blower. It can set my teeth on edge, but it won't break me down and make me confess to crimes against humanity. Will Barney songs break your psyche? I think that idea turns music into something like voodoo, which it certainly isn't. If that were true, then the inverse would be true. Playing hymns to someone strapped to a chair wouldn't make them a Christian."

Singleton, a classically trained composer, wrote and produced for the TV series Barney and Friends between 1990 and 2000. He says that the morality of what is done with his music once it is out of his hands is beyond his control.

"I would find it unfortunate that one of my works for kids was used as the underscore for a stripper, for example. I would prefer that my music for Barney is put to its best use with children, but beyond that there's not much I can do. Plus, we're not talking about dynamite or nuclear devices here. Music is just music. It's supposed to touch your mind, your body, and your emotions to varying degrees; but it doesn't fundamentally change people. I think that gives it much more credit than it deserves."
Paul Arendt

· Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners. Reprieve has hosted presentations at Meltdown at the South Bank Centre, London SE1, the last of which is the play Rendition Monologues, which is being stage on Saturday. For more information, see Reprieve, or contact Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS (020-7353 4640).

This article appeared in the Guardian on Thursday June 19 2008 on p12 of the Comment & features section. It was last updated at 11:21 on June 19 2008.

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