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Imagine you’re confined to a dark, windowless space, and a piece of music you find especially disagreeable is piped into the room at a volume so piercing it seems to be throbbing inside you. You might call this excruciating. Now imagine the music on a round-the-clock loop, with no indication of when or whether it will stop, and no escape. You might call this torture.

That’s how Binyam Mohamed spent his time in the secret CIA-run prison outside Kabul, where he was forced to listen to Eminem and Dr Dre, without pause, for 20 days. He’s just one of possibly thousands of detainees in the ‘war on terror’ who have been subjected to protracted, lacerating barrages of heavy metal, gangsta rap, disco (the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’) and numbingly repetitive children’s tunes (Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’) – what American military interrogators call ‘futility music’.

There’s some debate as to whether this practice is a form of torture (as the UN Committee against Torture decided in a 1997 ruling against Israel’s practice of keeping Palestinian prisoners awake for days with loud music) or of ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment (as the European Court of Human Rights decided in the case of the RUC’s use of white noise against IRA prisoners in the 1970s). In both cases it’s forbidden under international law. In the last year or so a movement to ban this practice has attracted the support of a number of artists whose work has been on the interrogation playlist, including David Gray, Massive Attack and Rage against the Machine. Reprieve, the group that provides legal representation for detainees at Guantánamo, has joined with a group of musicians to form Zero dB, an initiative whose goal is ‘to end the suffering caused by music torture’.

It isn’t hard to see why loud music appeals to interrogators. But it’s no less aggressive, or invasive, for leaving no visible marks. As anyone who’s gone to a rock concert or rave knows, its power lies in the fact that it seems inescapable, at once outside and inside the listener’s body: ‘what better medium than music to bring into being … the experience of the West’s (the infidel’s) ubiquitous, irresistible power?’ Suzanne Cusick asks in ‘Music as Torture/ Music as Weapon’, in the Transcultural Music Review. As she sees it, the use of music in interrogation began with the psychological experiments on the effects of continuous noise exposure conducted just after the Second World War by US, British and Canadian intelligence at Yale, Cornell and McGill. What the researchers discovered was that by inducing feelings of helplessness sonic disturbances could break down prisoners more effectively than beatings, starvation or sleep deprivation.

Cusick calls them ‘acoustic weapons’, and one way or another they’ve been in use for a long time. The Greeks and Romans used brass and percussion to send messages, and to rattle their opponents’ nerves; Joshua’s trumpets probably helped to wear down Jericho’s Canaanite defenders. In Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War (Indiana, £16.99), Jonathan Pieslak argues that music has played an increasing role in psy ops ever since the 1989 US invasion of Panama, when Manuel Noriega, an opera connoisseur, was driven from the Vatican Embassy, where he had taken refuge, under a deafening barrage of Led Zeppelin and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (‘nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide’). Just before the siege of Fallujah in 2004, Pieslak writes, hard rock ‘was played so relentlessly… that the Marines renamed the city “LalaFallujah”’; Iraqi mullahs attempted to resist the sonic blitz by blasting Koranic chants on their own loudspeakers. What made it possible for the 361st Psy Ops company to bombard Fallujah with AC/DC’s ‘Shoot to Thrill’ was the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), designed by the American Technology Company and sold to the US army and marines, the coast guard and a number of US police departments. Attached to an MP3 player, the LRAD can project a ‘strip of sound’ that can be heard – and can’t be ignored – for 500 to 1,000 metres.

Why is the American military using music this way? After all, it could as easily use white noise, or ‘sonic booms’, Israel’s weapon of choice whenever it has wanted to frighten Lebanon without going to war. Moustafa Bayoumi, in an article in the Nation in 2005, suggested that music is used to project ‘American culture as an offensive weapon’. But if the use of American music is a blunt assertion of imperial power, why are metal and gangsta rap the genres favoured by interrogators at Gitmo? One reason, Pieslak suggests, is that metal is uniquely harsh, with its ‘multiple, high-frequency harmonics in the guitar distortion’, and vocals that alternate between ‘pitched screaming’ and ‘guttural, unpitched yelling’. ‘If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I’d go insane, too,’ James Hetfield of Metallica says. ‘I’d tell you anything you’d want to know.’ (One interrogator told Pieslak that he tried Michael Jackson on Iraqi detainees, but ‘it doesn’t do anything for them.’)

One can imagine other dissonant forms of music – serial music, or free jazz – being equally effective. But not many military interrogators listen to Schoenberg or Stockhausen – or, for that matter, to Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. The use of metal and rap, it turns out, mainly reflects the soldiers’ taste. As Pieslak shows, it’s the music many of them listen to when they’re ‘getting crunked’ – pumped up for combat missions. Songs like Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’ put them ‘in the mood’ to fight because their pounding, syncopated rhythms sound very like a volley of bullets being fired from an automatic gun, but the same songs are also deployed in interrogation, and in combat, to terrify people and break them down. It all depends on where you’re listening, and who controls the loudspeakers.

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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 16 · 27 August 2009

Adam Shatz hammers another nail into the coffin of American military ethics in his discussion of torture by music, but he fails to mention the domestic noise pollution that is responsible for a large share of modern cultural anomie (LRB, 23 July). I started noticing this in the early 1980s, when Pachelbel’s Canon was piped into our local snooty fine foods emporium at Christmas due to the success of George Winston’s idiotic version of the melody. Pachelbel lite was followed by anything by Mozart, and then by Albinoni’s Adagio, which had lain dormant in popular consciousness since it was used for the soundtrack of Last Year at Marienbad (1961). I have had to consciously restrain myself from screaming in airports when I have been delayed for hours and forced to listen to the vicious prattle of CNN. We ban smoking and peanut dust in public places, but not junk noise. Shatz’s case for the military’s use of music as torture is pretty weak if the civilian population is subjected to the same kind of noise in order to make passive consumers ‘happy’.

James Carmichael
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Acoustic weapons don’t always rely on the aggressive projection of sound. Before the development of Radio Direction Finding into effective radar, sound detectors were used at Dover during the First World War in an attempt to pick up the distant drone of approaching Zeppelins. The half-hemisphere erected at Fan Bay was 15 feet in diameter and held a microphone at its centre through which the operator could detect range and direction before alerting fighter command. At best, these gigantic ears could detect invaders 20 miles away, an advantage soon made obsolete by the increasing speed of aircraft. Several sound detectors remain, however, including three eerie monoliths at Denge in Kent.

Tim Johnson
New York

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