Yasir al-Qutaji is a 30-year-old lawyer from Mosul, Iraq. In March 2004, while exploring allegations that US troops were torturing Iraqis, Qutaji was arrested by American forces. News accounts describe how he was then subjected to the same kinds of punishment he was investigating. He was hooded, stripped naked and doused with cold water. He was beaten by American soldiers who wore gloves so as not to leave permanent marks. And he was left in a room soldiers blithely called The Disco, a place where Western music rang out so loud that his interrogators were, in Qutaji’s words, forced to “talk to me via a loudspeaker that was placed next to my ears.”
Qutaji is hardly the only Iraqi to speak of loud music being blared at him, and the technique echoes far beyond Mosul. In Qaim, near the Syrian border, Newsweek found American soldiers blasting Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at detainees in a shipping crate while flashing lights in their eyes. Near Falluja, three Iraqi journalists working for Reuters were seized by the 82nd Airborne. They charged that “deafening music” was played directly into their ears while soldiers ordered them to dance. And back in Mosul, Haitham al-Mallah described being hooded, handcuffed and delivered to a location where soldiers boomed “extremely loud (and dirty) music” at him. Mallah said the site was “an unknown place which they call ‘the disco.'”
Disco isn’t dead. It has gone to war.
And it’s everywhere: Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, anywhere touched by the “war on terror.” In Afghanistan, Zakim Shah, a 20-year-old Afghan farmer, was forced to stay awake while in American custody by soldiers blasting music and shouting at him. Shah told the New York Times that after enduring the pain of music, “he grew so exhausted…that he vomited.” In Guantánamo Bay, Eminem, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica (again) and Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA”) have been played at mind-numbing volumes, sometimes for stretches of up to fourteen hours, at detainees. And at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Salah al-Rawi, a 29-year-old Iraqi, told a similar story. For no reason, over a period of four months, he was hooded, beaten, stripped, urinated on and lashed to his cell door by his hands and feet. He also talked about music becoming a weapon. “There was a stereo inside the cell,” he said, “with a sound so loud I couldn’t sleep. I stayed like that for twenty-three hours.”
Whatever the playlist–usually heavy metal or hip-hop but sometimes, bizarrely, Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” or selections from Sesame Street–the music is pumped at detainees with such brutality to unravel them without laying so much as a feather on their bodies. The mind is another story, and blasting loud music at captives has become part of what has now entered our lexicon as “torture lite.” Torture lite is a calculated combination of psychological and physical means of coercion that stop short of causing death and pose little risk that telltale physical marks will be left behind, but that nonetheless can cause extreme psychological trauma. It’s designed to deprive the victim of sleep and to cause massive sensory overstimulation, and it has been shown in different situations to be psychologically unbearable.
Clearly, torture music is an assault on human rights. But more broadly, what does it mean when music gets enrolled in schools of torture and culture is sent jackbooted into war? With torture music, our culture is no longer primarily a means of individual expression or an avenue to social criticism. Instead, it is an actual weapon, one that represents and projects American military might. Cultural differences are exploited, and multiculturalism becomes a strategy for domination. Torture music is the crudest kind of cultural imperialism, grimly ironic in a war that is putatively about spreading “universal” American values.