Clive Stafford Smith

Torture by Music

on 30 October 2006


A new U.S. Army Field Manual published last month banned water-boarding as ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’, but the Bush Administration continues to find 'torture by music' attractive.

Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney said that the U.S. should use water-boarding (holding the prisoner’s head under water to simulate drowning) to elicit information from terror suspects.

“Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” asked his conservative radio interviewer.

"It's a no-brainer for me,” said Cheney.

The comment was embarrassing because the Bush Administration had just assured Congress that water-boarding was illegal and would never be used. A new U.S. Army Field Manual published last month banned water-boarding as ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.’ The White House insisted that Cheney had been misinterpreted, although it was difficult to see how -- which part of ‘no-brainer’ don’t we understand?

This is not the only realm in which the Administration needs to find a consistent message. Another ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ that the Administration continues to find attractive is ‘torture by music.’ Many people detained in the "War on Terror" describe having music blasted at them 24 hours a day at great volume. They have identified the songs. Indeed, if you ask what the tunes of Aerosmith, Eminem, Don Mclean, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac, and Meatloaf have in common with the theme tune of the American children’s television show Barney there is only one answer: All have been used by the United States to torture people.

The torturers’ choice of tunes has been highly questionable. For example, Springsteen’s 'Born in the U.S.A.' has been a favorite in the secret prisons, duplicating the mistake made by the Reagan campaign in 1984, when the Republicans thought the chorus would make a loyal campaign chant: “Born in the U.S.A.! Born in the U.S.A.!” Yet the ultimate message of the song is harshly critical, condemning war in Vietnam, and describing a veteran’s desperate efforts to find work.

Other lyrics being used by today’s torturers seem equally inappropriate. In White America Eminem raps that he plans to “piss on the lawns of the White House” and “spit liquor in the faces of this democracy of hypocrisy.” It is difficult to see how President Bush could approve of this, any more than the verse where Eminem expresses his intention to have sex with the Vice President’s wife.

Singling out the theme tune of ‘Barney the imaginary television dinosaur’ to play to terrorists is equally perplexing, particularly given the closing stanza: “I love you, you love me! We’re a great big family. With a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?” Thus far, President Bush has eschewed the cuddly approach in the "War on Terror".

As the architect of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld needs some consistency from his torturers. I do not pretend to be an expert in the art of musical abuse, but surely he should encourage the disk jockeys of the American gulag to select more country and western songs, if he really wants the prisoners to suffer. Take Toby Keith, for example, and his song about “a middle-aged middle-eastern camel-herdin' man … [in a] two-bedroom cave here in North Afghanistan.” The Administration would be much better off blasting out how we should “flip a couple fingers to the Taliban!” This kind of torture would be on-message and much more effective: I, for one, would confess to anything after enduring the first verse.

Rumsfeld must also be careful because some of these sensitive artists are likely offended that their music is being used to abuse. While the Bush Administration recently persuaded Congress to abolish virtually all the legal rights of prisoners in the War on Terror, they failed to eliminate copyright law for musicians.

Of course, torture victims cannot sue these days, but artists can. There is nothing novel about this, as property rights have enjoyed much more legal support during the Bush presidency than human rights. It’s the message of the Apple campaign: Don’t steal music. But because the torturers did not get permission to spin particular disks, they are liable for royalties: They must pay for each play.

This means that one day Rumsfeld will end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. I’d love to ask the questions at his deposition: how many times each song was played, and why a particular tune was selected in the first place. But perhaps we can preempt the litigation. Desert Island Discs is an obvious alternative; Kirsty Young should invite Rumseld on the programme. Presumably, his chosen book would not be the Geneva Convention – though it might be his ‘luxury item’. Then he could tell us all which eight songs he would choose to play over and over at high volume.

This article also appeared in the New Statesman.

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