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Disco Inferno | The Nation

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Disco Inferno

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Torture music has a history. In 1997, while considering the regular Israeli use of the practice, the United Nations Committee Against Torture explicitly qualified it as torture and called for its ban. In 1978 the European Court of Human Rights confronted a similar technique employed by Britain in the early 1970s against Irish detainees, although in the British rendition, it was loud noise instead of music that was wielded against detainees. This was one of the so-called Five Techniques, scientifically developed interrogation practices that also included wall-standing, hooding, sleep deprivation and withholding of food and drink. While the Court stopped short of calling this torture, it did label it "inhumane and degrading" and found that the Five Techniques were breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights. Britain promised never to employ them again. (Questions have since been raised about British troops "hooding" prisoners in Iraq.)

About the Author

Moustafa Bayoumi
Moustafa Bayoumi
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College, is a co-editor of The Edward Said Reader (Vintage) and the author of...

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In fact, the Five Techniques never disappeared. All five and a few more have materialized as an orchestra of effects in the prosecution of the "war on terror." Attorney Jonathan Pyle and his law partner, Susan Burke, have interviewed scores of Iraqis for a class-action suit against private contractors for their alleged roles in abusing Iraqis. They report that Iraqis repeatedly describe the same kinds of abuse--being hooded and handcuffed, sealed in containers, doused with cold water, subjected to strobe lights and blasted with brutally loud music. And according to the Fay report, one of the government's many investigations of the Abu Ghraib scandal, sleep adjustment was brought to Iraq with the 519 Military Intelligence Battalion from Afghanistan. Shafiq Rasul, a British citizen who was imprisoned for two and a half years, says he endured similar treatment in Guantánamo after October 2002. Citing a source familiar with conditions at Guantánamo, Physicians for Human Rights described how the "deprivation of sensory stimulation on the one hand and overstimulation on the other were causing spatial and temporal disorientation in detainees. The results were self-harm and suicide attempts."

With a little imagination, it's not hard to see exactly how. Of Britain's Five Techniques, noise was considered the hardest to suffer. In his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, John Conroy describes the "absolute" and "unceasing" noise that the Irishmen who were first subjected to the Five Techniques endured. While the other four techniques were clearly terrifying, the noise was "an assault of such ferocity that many of the men now recall it as the worst part of the ordeal."

A US military program confirms Conroy's observation. In July The New Yorker reported on the SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), a course that trains soldiers to withstand interrogations by subjecting them to the harsh treatment they could expect if captured. (The article suggests these counterinterrogation techniques have been twisted and turned into policy at Guantánamo.) Soldiers often believe the interrogation part of their program will be the most difficult, but according to the article, "the worst moment is when they are made to listen to taped loops of cacophonous sounds. One of the most stress-inducing tapes is a recording of babies crying inconsolably. Another is a Yoko Ono album."

Such distress noises (called "horror sounds" by one ex-detainee) have been reported in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Erik Saar, a former Gitmo translator, describes in his book Inside the Wire how Qahtani "was subjected to strobe lights; a loud, insistent tape of cats meowing (from a cat food commercial) interspersed with babies crying; and deafening loud music--one song blasted at him constantly was Drowning Pool's thumping, nihilistic metal rant 'Bodies' ('Let the bodies hit the floor...')."

Ex-interrogators at Guantánamo's Camp Delta described their methods to the New York Times. These included shackling detainees to the floor, cranking up the air-conditioning and forcing them to endure strobe lights with rock and rap music playing at mind-numbing volumes for unbearably long sessions. "It fried them," one said. Another admitted that detainees returned "very wobbly. They came back to their cells and were just completely out of it."

This is when the mind begins its rebellion against the body. After you end up "wobbly" or "fried," a severe post-traumatic stress disorder commonly results. Patrick Shivers, one of the Irish victims of the Five Techniques, developed a lasting and severe hypersensitivity to noise to the point where he was "disturbed by the sound of a comb placed on a shelf in his bathroom."

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