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October 22, 2009

What Music Was Used to Coerce Guantanamo Detainees?

Most of us have been trapped somewhere and forced to listen to music we don't like, so we have a sense that muzak can be annoying as well as the blaring and thumping of tunes from the car next to us. But music is also used in hostage and standoff situations, and it was used to help coerce detainees at Guantanamo to cooperate in revealing information. There's some info from a Washington Post article (Torture songs spur a protest most vocal) that reports on a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records on how music was used in the interrogation process.

Was the theme to "Sesame Street" really played to torture prisoners held at Guantanamo and other detention camps? What about Don McLean's "American Pie"? Or the Meow Mix jingle? Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."?  A high-profile coalition of artists -- including the members of Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Roots -- demanded Thursday that the government release the names of all the songs that were blasted since 2002 at prisoners for hours, even days, on end, to try to coerce cooperation or as a method of punishment.

The article quotes Suzanne Cusick, whom the Post describes as "a music professor at New York University who has studied, lectured about and written extensively on the use of music as torture in the current wars." (As someone who studies genocide and hate crimes, I'm not in a position to say this is odd...). She states that "Sound at a certain level creates sensory overload and breaks down subjectivity and can [bring about] a regression to infantile behavior. Its effectiveness depends on the constancy of the sound, not the qualities of the music." Played at a certain volume, she said, "it simply prevents people from thinking."

It makes sense that the loudness is a key factor. But certainly the type of music can also have an effect. Many of my students drive in a cars with huge huge speakers cranking rap.  So, using rap with them in an interrogation setting would take longer for it to be effective.

"Cusick, the NYU music professor, has interviewed a number of former detainees about their experiences and says the music they most often described hearing was heavy metal, rap and country. Specific songs mentioned include Queen's "We Are the Champions" and "March of the Pigs" by industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails." 

The FOIA request was from the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Having gone through some frustrating FOIAs for information for my private prison book, I know this will take a while a long @#$%*ing time. Among other items, we submitted a FOIA for contracts the federal Bureau of Prisons had with private prisons. The law requires them to acknowledge your request within a certain time period, but there is no limit on how long they can take to produce documents - and you may need to hassle with them over the photocopying cost. Several years later and we're still waiting for the contracts.

The National Security Archive has some more info and a list of links to other stories about this request.  The deeper background is available on this page, which has excerpts of documents that mention the use of music in interrogation. This includes "declassified documents and published reports that refer to the use of 'loud' music to 'create futility' in uncooperative detainees at Guantanamo. A 2004 Defense Department report on abuses at the military base in Cuba, for example, stated that the 'futility technique included the playing of Metallica, Britney Spears and Rap music.' For FOIA geeks (like me), they have the actual FOIA letter they sent to the government.

 

don't steal or torture with music idop
 

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