Music torture has been a common practice for the CIA since it began its “enhanced interrogation program” in the early 2000s. The process is designed to “instill fear, disorient and prolong the shock of capture” in prisoners.
The songs that tortured a lot of prisoners
Sergeant Mark Hadsell, a member of the US psychological operations team, described the effectiveness of the tactic:
“If you listen to it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions begin to slip, your train of thought slows and your will is broken. Then we go in and talk to them.”
Any method of torture has debatable merit – music torture was popular in part because it seemed more palatable to the public. But to hear about the experience of people who have been subjected to these songs is to see how terrible it is to have a beloved song turned against you.
Here are 11 songs that have been turned into torture devices.
1. „The Real Slim Shady” – Eminem
Binyam Mohamed heard Eminem’s “Slim Shady” for 20 days.
“I heard it non-stop, over and over again,” he reportedly told Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer and the founder and director of Reprieve, a UK-based organization committed to ending torture through music.
“The CIA worked people, including me, day and night in the months before they left. Many have lost their minds.”
Mohamed said he could hear the others in the prison “screaming and banging their heads against the walls”, writes mic.com.
2. „Take Your Best Shot” – Dope
British citizen Ruhal Ahmed described the process in a 2008 interview with Reprieve investigators:
“I can take being beaten, it’s not a problem. Once you accept that you’re going to go into the interrogation room and get beaten up, it’s okay. You can prepare yourself mentally. But when you’re being tortured psychologically, you can’t.”
He stated that he was subjected to torture “numerous times” to a variety of music.
“It makes you feel like you’re going crazy. You lose your mind and it’s very scary to think that you could go crazy with all the music, with the loud noise, and because after a while you can’t hear the lyrics at all, all you hear is loud beats.”
3. „Dirrty” – Christina Aguilera
Mohammed al Qahtani, the 20th alleged hijacker of the September 11, 2001 attacks, reportedly received this torture as part of a much larger “theme music” set up for him.
Aguilera’s sexually charged pop song was one of several practices designed to make him unable to be a practicing Muslim. Many prisoners suffered humiliations of this kind.
4. „Zikrayati (My Memories)” – Mohamed el-Qasabgi
Investigators sometimes used more familiar music, hoping to exploit Muslim cultural taboos and the sense of guilt involved in enjoying music on certain holy days.
Interrogators played Arabic music for al Qatani on the first day of Ramadan on 7 December 2002. Hearing the familiar instruments, he shouted “that it is a violation of Islamic law to listen to Arabic music”.
In fact, this is not a quarantine law; it is more of a cultural precept. The investigators warned al Qatani that it was a sin “to add prohibitions not mentioned in the Qur’an”.
Al Qatani continued to insist that “the music was forbidden” and relented by stating that he “couldn’t do anything about the music that was being played in the interrogation booth.”
5. „Babylon” – David Gray
Military personnel reportedly used Gray’s soft rock ballad in their torture because of the biblical connotations of its title. While interviewing ex-prisoners, German musicologist Christian Gruny played this song for a Guantanamo detainee, who immediately burst into uncontrollable sobs.
Building on Gruny’s research, Suzanne Cusick elaborates that music torture operates by depriving the detainee of a safe “inner space.” This invades him with the sounds and cultural expressions of the captor and leaves the captive with nowhere to hide to “get away from the pain”.
This is why American soldiers used a lot of patriotic music, like Neil Diamond’s “America” or Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
6. „I Love You” – The Barney Theme
Apparently it’s the most used torture song in the CIA’s arsenal.
Apparently the song’s creator, Bob Singleton, “just laughed” when he heard of its use:
“It seemed so ridiculous that something totally harmless to children could threaten the mental state of an adult. I’d rate the annoyance factor as about equal to hearing my neighbor’s leaf blower. He may give me a fork, but he won’t make me give in and confess to crimes against humanity.”
It’s true that he never heard the sound at such a volume that it would break his ears for weeks.
7. „Saturday Night Fever” – Bee Gees
Pakistani-English Moazzam Begg, arrested by the CIA in Pakistan in 2002, wrote one of the most comprehensive memoirs describing the torture he witnessed in the US military prison system. During his time in Bagram, Afghanistan, he suffered from the Bee Gees.
At first he thought it was a joke: “One time they actually played the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack all night.
“Will talk. We’ll all talk,’ I half-jokingly said when they put it on, ‘just stop that crap, please!’
But as the torture began to drag on, it became unbearable. “It was terrible, there was no light at all, it was so narrow, so hot, sitting there. You couldn’t see or do anything, you had nothing to see, you had no one to talk to, you had nothing to do but hit the walls.”
8. Tema Meow Mix
The whole idea behind musical torture is to create a method of torture that doesn’t seem offensive to the audience.
The song “Saturday Night Fever” above represents some of this “audience acceptable” music. Investigative reporter Justine Sharrock also highlights the theme of the Meow Mix song:
“You almost have to stop laughing because you realize this is actually torture.” After a particularly long heavy metal session, the sudden change in dynamics that this song heralds can be particularly jarring.
9. „The Beautiful People” – Marilyn Manson
Begg, the man who was forced to listen to disco, said he was not as disturbed by the musical torture as others. The men who suffered the most were those who came from the more rural areas of Afghanistan and Yemen, who had never been exposed to Western music before.
The worst part of the whole ordeal for Begg was the interruption of sleep. “Sometimes it would stop at 3am or so, but your ability to sleep was already disrupted. You lose your ability to have a routine sleep. … The other thing they did was play the music at different times … the randomness of when it started or ended was frustrating, it makes you tired, it shakes you, it makes you angry, on top of all the other situations of not knowing when you’re going to be released , queried or moved to those cells.
10. „Fuck Your God” – Deicide
Musical torture often had significant effects on US military personnel as well.
Tony Lagouranis, a former US Army interpreter, nearly lost his mind one day while interrogating a prisoner who had been forced to listen to some heavy metal music.