Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zero dB: Against the Use of Music as an Instrument of Torture

The human rights organization Reprieve has launched a campaign against the use of music as an instrument of torture, specifically at the US's Guantanamo gulag, where such use of music has featured in many accounts from inmates and prison personnel reporting human rights abuses at that prison. The campaign is being led by numerous musicians and is supported by the UK's Musicians Union. (A quick qualification here: not all musicians are horrified at the thought that their music has become an instrument of torture, and I don't mean to imply that everyone whose music is being used in this way is appalled at the thought. Hmm... I wonder if it's true that if you're generally supportive of the whole idea of torture that you're happy to see your art destroying the minds of prisoners. Now that I think about it, I don't suppose it is necessarily true: if you supported the idea of torture and also believed in the purity of your art, I suppose it's conceivable that you might not want your work used in that way...)

Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985) offers an elaborate analysis of how essential the stripping of the cultural functions of the objects in the prisoner's small world is to the structure of torture. Walls, toilet, bed, bathtub, doors, door frames all become weapons of the torturer, thus not only becoming sources of pain, but also unmaking the world the prisoner lives in: denying that there is anything but pain and the social isolation that pain necessarily brings.

Beside the overwhelming fact that a human being is being severely hurt, the exact nature of the weapon or the miming of the deconstruction of civilization is at most secondary. But it is also crucial to see that the two are here forced into being expressions and amplifications of one another: the de-objectifying of the objects, the unmaking of the made, is a process externalizing the way in which the person's pain causes his world to disintegrate; and, at the same time, the disintegration of the world is here, in the most literal way possible, made painful, made the direct cause of the pain. (41)

So, though it might seem bizarrely perverse to use music (which musicians perform and composers compose to give pleasure and emotional and spiritual sustenance to listeners) solely to inflict so much pain on those forced to listen to it that prisoners are driven to bash their heads into concrete walls to try to escape it, such (mis)use is actually consistent with the phenomenology of torture that Scarry so painstakingly elaborates.

Scarry notes, also, that the difficulty of articulating pain

permits political and perceptual complications of the most serious kind. The failure to express pain-- whether the failure to objectify its attributes or instead the failure, once those attributes are objectified, to refer them to their original site in the human body-- will always work to allow its appropriation and conflation with debased forms of power. (14)

I suspect it's difficult for many people to take the notion that music can be used to cause pain seriously. The first time I heard of music being used in this way was back at the end of 1989 or the beginning of 1990, in a New York Times report that US forces were blasting rock music at Manuel Noriega, 24/7, to force him out of his hiding place and surrender. The tone of the report was mocking-- Noriega, it said, loved opera and hated rock and roll. And that, the article implied, was the reason Noriega couldn't stand it: that it was a matter of bombarding him with music he hated. As I recall, the article listed some of the albums played-- the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and so on-- as though to say, who could object to being blasted with good music?

The music being used at Guantanamo to unmake its prisoners' world includes

• AC/DC - Hell's Bells
• AC/DC - Shoot to Thrill
• Aerosmith
• Barney the Purple Dinosaur - theme tune
• Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
• Britney Spears
• Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA
• Christina Aguilera - Dirrty
• David Gray - Babylon
• Deicide - Fuck Your God
• Don McLean - American Pie
• Dope - Die MF Die
• Dope - Take Your Best Shot
• Dr. Dre
• Drowning Pools - Bodies
• Eminem - Kim
• Eminem - Slim Shady
• Eminem - White America
• Li'l Kim
• Limp Bizkit
• Matchbox Twenty - Gold
• Meat Loaf
• Metallica - Enter Sandman
• Neil Diamond - America
• Nine Inch Nails - March of the Pigs
• Nine Inch Nails - Mr. Self-Destruct
• Prince - Raspberry Beret
• Queen - We are The Champions
• Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the Name Of
• Red Hot Chilli Peppers
• Saliva - Click Click Boom
• Sesame Street - theme tune
• Tupac - All Eyes on Me

Several articles were published today, attempting to articulate how painful this experience has been for the prisoners subjected to it. The AP's article is here, the Guardian's is here, and the Telegraph's is here. The Musicians Union has a press release here.

This is from the AP article:

Ruhal Ahmed, a Briton who was captured in Afghanistan, describes excruciating sessions at Guantanamo Bay. He said his hands were shackled to his feet, which were shackled to the floor, forcing him into a painful squat for periods of up to two days.

"You're in agony," Ahmed, who was released without charge in 2004, told Reprieve. He said the agony was compounded when music was introduced, because "before you could actually concentrate on something else, try to make yourself focus on some other things in your life that you did before and take that pain away.

"It makes you feel like you are going mad," he said.

* * * *
Not all of the music is hard rock. Christopher Cerf, who wrote music for "Sesame Street," said he was horrified to learn songs from the children's TV show were used in interrogations.

"I wouldn't want my music to be a party to that," he told AP.

* * * *

Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, has been especially forceful in denouncing the practice. During a recent concert in San Francisco, he proposed taking revenge on President George W. Bush.

"I suggest that they level Guantanamo Bay, but they keep one small cell and they put Bush in there ... and they blast some Rage Against the Machine," he said to whoops and cheers.

Some musicians, however, say they're proud that their music is used in interrogations. Those include bassist Stevie Benton, whose group Drowning Pool has performed in Iraq and recorded one of the interrogators' favorites, "Bodies."

"People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down," he told Spin magazine. "I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that."

One prisoner, two years after his release, described the experience in this way:

Asked to describe the experience, Vance said: "It sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you're in an environment like that."

"It sort of removes you from you." To me, this sounds very much about what Scarry was talking about.

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