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"This music is bad. It’s bad for you!"


(Via Manan Ahmed)

The Society for Ethnomusicology has declared itself against the use of music to torture detainees:

The SEM is committed to the ethical uses of music to further human understanding and to uphold the highest standards of human rights. The Society is equally committed to drawing critical attention to the abuse of such standards through the unethical uses of music to harm individuals and the societies in which they live. The U.S. government and its military and diplomatic agencies has used music as an instrument of abuse since 2001, particularly through the implementation of programs of torture in both covert and overt detention centers as part of the war on terror.

In an article linked to by the SEM, Suzanne Cusick describes some of the methods to which the society objects:

As early as May 2003 the BBC reported that the US Army had used Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I Love You” in the interrogation of Iraqi detainees, playing the songs repeatedly at high volume inside of shipping containers. Documents obtained by the ACLU include an email from an unidentified FBI agent, dated Dec. 5, 2003, that describes at least three incidents involving Guantanamo detainees being chained to the floor and subjected to “extreme heat, extreme cold, or extremely loud rap music”. The June 12, 2005 issue of Time included a story based on the 84-page log of Mohammed al Qahtani’s interrogation there from November 2002 to January 2003. Qahtani’s interrogations began at midnight; whenever he dozed he was awakened either by water poured over his head or the sound of Christina Aguilera’s music. In December 2005, Human Rights Watch posted brief first-person accounts of detainees released from a secret prison in Afghanistan, many of whom asserted that part of their experience included being held in a pitch-black space and forced to listen to music that they described, variously, as “unbearably loud”, “infidel”, or “Western”. The same posting included the account of Guantanamo prisoner Benyan Mohammed, an Ethiopian who had lived in Britain, and who had been forced to listen to music by Eminem (Slim Shady) and Dr Dre for twenty days before the music was replaced by “horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds”… Read together, these reports suggest that the “deafening music” is usually delivered to a detainee who has been chained into a “stress position”, in a pitch-black space made uncomfortably hot or cold.

Cusick, interestingly, documents the blogospheric reaction to discolsures in 2005 that music and sound were being used as part of the interrogation regimen at Guantanamo and elsewhere. She describes how commenters at Little Green Footballs, Free Republic and The Volokh Conspiracy among other sites mocked — with near universality — the notion that music might in fact be considered “torture.” Many commenters, predictably, tried to come up with the “ideal playlist” to be used to torture Islamic prisoners. (I also haven’t overlooked the fact that the title of this post participates in some way in the trivialization of music and torture. I thought about changing it after I wrote that last paragraph, but I’m not sure I’m entitled to a “holier than thou” attitude on this issue.)

Quite correctly, Cusick ties the use of music to the “no-touch” techniques described in harrowing detail by Alfred McCoy in his recent history of the American Way of Torture since the Cold War. McCoy’s book is a remarkable survey of the ways that psychologists and other professionals helped to devise the means to disorient people under interrogation — through sensory deprivation, the use of cultural aversions and individual phobias — to utterly dismantle the psychology of detainees and render them vulnerable to exploitation.

Good for the SEM. Now if only the American Psychological Association would get its shit together.

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