A recent documentary by Al-Jazeera has received a great deal of attention the past week for its focus on a certain, and particularly sinister, method of torture used at Guantánamo Bay: music. And not just any old music - over 200 children’s songs from the immensely popular show Sesame Street have been used to brutally torture detainees for over a decade. The documentary follows Christopher Cerf – who composed the Sesame Street songs – while he learns exactly how his music has been used to torture the men held in that infamous legal abyss.
While the Pentagon - the headquarters of the US Department of Defence – still denies torturing detainees and claim that music was used in a positive way, stories told by former prisoners and guards show a very different, and very disturbing, picture. In addition to Sesame Street tunes, songs by Metallica, Johnny Cash and Eminem have been used. The songs were blasted at detainees - sometimes simultaneously and always at an extremely high volume. Torture by music may not leave a physical mark; it differs in that sense from the more traditional methods, such as hanging people from the ceiling or pulling out fingernails, but the horrible mental consequences of such torture are as devastating as anything which leaves visible scars.
Reprieve has worked on this issue for some time – sadly, many of our clients who were tortured in Guantánamo were subjected to these methods. Back in 2010 several musicians joined a Reprieve campaign called ‘Zero dB’, expressing their outrage at the misuse of their music by US officials. During the campaign R.E.M. issued a statement, saying: “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice – to now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”
Guantánamo Bay remains open for business, and men still languish there – most with neither charge nor trial. Torture by music may be nothing new, but this most recent documentary serves as a potent reminder of what a grotesque practice it is to use music – music that is designed to entertain - as a method for causing deliberate and unimaginable suffering.