Disco Inferno

Disco Inferno

Military detainees have been subjected to starvation, sleep deprivation and now Metallica and Britney Spears. Blasted at high volume, torture music has become a weapon of war, used to destroy the minds of Muslim detainees. It’s time for musicians to speak up.


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.

Yet the first reaction torture music inspired among Americans was not indignation but amusement. Finally, dangerous terrorists–like everyone else–will be tortured by Britney Spears’s music! Most commentators saw it this way, particularly after Time reported that Christina Aguilera’s music was droned at Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged twentieth 9/11 hijacker, at Guantánamo. The Chicago Tribune‘s website compiled readers’ favorite “interro-tunes” (the winner was Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.”) The New York Sun called it “mood music for jolting your jihadi,” and a Missouri paper wrote cheekily that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had “approved four of seven stronger coercive tunes but said that forcing the prisoner to view photos of Aguilera’s Maxim magazine photo shoot–in which she poses in a pool with only an inner-tube to cover her ferret-like figure–would fall outside Geneva Convention standards.”

Thus, torture lite slides right into mainstream American acceptance. It’s a frat-house prank taken one baby-step further–as essentially harmless, and American, as an apple pie in the face. It’s seen as a justified means of exacting revenge on or extracting information from a terrorist–never mind that detainees in the “war on terror” are mostly Muslims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Without music, life would be an error,” writes Nietzsche, but for Muslim detainees, it’s the other way around. Mind-numbing American music is blasted at them with such ferocity that they will believe their lives are a mistake.

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.)

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.”

In Iraq we can hear about the beginnings of the same traumas. In a gripping Vanity Fair article, Donovan Webster searched for and found “the man in the hood” from the macabre Abu Ghraib photos. Haj Ali told Webster of being hooded, stripped, handcuffed to his cell and bombarded with a looped sample of David Gray’s “Babylon.” It was so loud, he said, “I thought my head would burst.” Webster then cued up “Babylon” on his iPod and played it for Haj Ali to confirm the song. Ali ripped the earphones off his head, and started crying. “He didn’t just well up with tears,” Webster later told me. “He broke down sobbing.”

Sounding brass in front of your enemy has always been a part of war, from Joshua’s trumpets tumbling walls in the Bible to a mean fife and drum ringing out “Rule Britannia” across the Plains of Abraham. When American forces invaded Panama in 1989, Manuel Noriega fled to the papal nunciature, and American forces roared Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and songs with the word “jungle” in the lyrics in front of His Holiness’s house. During the siege of Falluja in April 2004, American soldiers cranked the volume on their AC/DC. Their preferred song? “Shoot to Thrill.”

The calculated use of American music in interrogations is less about rallying the troops than destroying a detainee. The US innovation in the interrogation practice of blaring loud noises is the deliberate use of American culture as an offensive weapon. While culture has long been a rationalization for conquest (consider the “civilizing mission” of European colonialisms), and while much post-Holocaust European thought has viewed contemporary culture as coercive and potentially authoritarian, neither colonialism nor the Frankfurt School witnessed the transformation of culture into the very instrument of torture. For them, culture was more the end than the means of conquest.

But culture as warfare is Pentagon policy. Donald Rumsfeld and Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez approved its deployment in their lists of harsher interrogation techniques for detainees. Rumsfeld did so in April 2003 and Sanchez in September 2003, and their almost identical memos both specify, along with the use of auditory stimuli or music, that “interrogators be provided reasonable latitude to vary techniques depending on the detainee’s culture.” The Sanchez memo also allows the presence of military working dogs, which “exploits Arab fear of dogs.”

Altering interrogations according to a detainee’s culture is not necessarily damaging, but the Pentagon’s multiculturalism doesn’t run deep, just wild. With the dissemination of the Abu Ghraib photos, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that the “bible” among neoconservatives was The Arab Mind, a piece of trash scholarship more than a generation old that claims Arabs understand only force, shame and humiliation. When the book was reissued in 2002, Norvell De Atkine, director of Middle East studies at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, wrote its foreword. This is “essential reading,” writes the man who has “briefed hundreds of military teams being deployed to the Middle East.” So essential, in fact, that The Arab Mind “forms the basis” of his “cultural” curriculum.

Despite (or maybe because of) the continued use of the book, military professionals’ knowledge of other cultures is actually dangerously low. A recent article in the military journal Joint Force Quarterly reveals how little American forces understand Iraqi society, using an example of how the US military frequently misunderstands Iraqi hand gestures, leading to tragic consequences and preventable deaths. The article goes on to quote a Special Forces colonel assigned to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. “We literally don’t know where to go for information on what makes other societies tick,” admits the colonel, “so we use Google to make policy.”

What the practice of sounding loud American music at Muslims reveals most is the power American forces associate with American culture. Any prolonged loud noise in the right circumstances stands a good chance of driving you mad. Yet narcissistically, American intelligence seems to believe American music will break you more quickly. “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it,” a psy-ops sergeant told Newsweek. And in Guantánamo, they even have a name for it. The Pentagon’s Schmidt investigation identifies it as “futility music”–that is to say, screamingly loud and deliberately Western music that will, per the Army field manual, “highlight the futility of the detainee’s situation.” (On the other hand, “cultural music,” Schmidt reports, is “played as an incentive.”) Twenty-four thousand interrogations later, “futility music,” according to Schmidt, remains authorized.

Fifty years ago, the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire wrote that the trouble with colonization was not just that it dehumanizes the colonized but that it also “decivilizes” the colonizer. Torture does the same. While transforming a human being into a thing of pain, it simultaneously strangles human society. Torture threatens to decivilize us today not only because its practices are being normalized within our national imagination but also because civil society is being enlisted to rationalize its demands. In most arenas, this process has elicited at least some vocal opposition. When it was revealed that medical professionals were assisting in abusive interrogations, debates among doctors and psychologists followed about torture, medical ethics and war. And while Administration lawyers have attempted to narrow the definition of torture and to authorize new methods of inflicting pain, other attorneys, including top military lawyers, have challenged interrogation policies on legal, moral and tactical grounds.

And so the B-side to the torture music issue flips to the music community’s response to the practice. While many musicians may not even be aware of this instrumentalized use of their songs, Metallica’s James Hetfield did comment on the phenomenon to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked about a BBC report that described his band’s music being blared during Iraqi interrogations, he responded with “pride” that his music is “culturally offensive” to Iraqis. Hetfield said that he considers his music “a freedom to express my insanity…. If they’re not used to freedom,” he said, “I’m glad to be a part of the exposure.”

But Hetfield’s voice must not be the only one. Where do other musicians stand? Will Eminem rage against the torture machine or will Bruce Springsteen speak out as his music is press-ganged into futility and pain? If American musicians oppose the use of their music in torture, it’s time for them to make some noise.

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