“Music torture,” as termed by its critics, is typically associated with heavy metal music. After Manual Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy following the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, U.S. troops bombarded the compound with hard rock music, including, reportedly, Van Halen’s Panama, until Noriega surrendered. And human rights groups, such as Reprieve and Amnesty International, have taken issue with the use of high volume rock music on detainees.
But a new film produced by Al Jazeera explores the use of music as an interrogation method at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib after the Associated Press reported in 2008 that music from Sesame Street, among other music, was forced on prisoners at high volume.
Al Jazeera’s documentary, “Songs of War,” follows award-winning musician Christopher Cerf as he investigates the military’s use of music as a psychological warfare weapon and the role played, in some cases, by his own music for Sesame Street.
Human Rights Project Director Professor Thomas Keenan explained to Al Jazeera:
Prisoners were forced to put on headphones. They were attached to chairs, headphones were attached to their heads, and they were left alone just with the music for very long periods of time. Sometimes hours, even days on end, listening to repeated loud music.
Cerf was shocked at the role played by music he composed to teach children to read and write, and went to explore the use of music as an interrogation tool. “In Guantanamo they actually used music to break prisoners,” he said. “So the idea that my music had a role in that is kind of outrageous. This is fascinating to me both because of the horror of music being perverted to serve evil purposes if you like, but I’m also interested in how that’s done. What is it about music that would make it work for that purpose?”
It’s unclear whether the military is still using music in this way, however. But Politico reports that a Pentagon spokesperson said yesterday that “music is used both in a positive way and as a disincentive,” but added it’s not a form of torture. “We don’t torture,” Capt. John Kirby said.
Watch the full documentary from Al Jazeera: