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How the CIA used music to "break" detainees

Music may be no-touch, but it's still torture
Music may be no-touch, but it's still torture
Joe Posner

"Rolling, rolling, rolling," Rawhide begins. The song, originally recorded by Frankie Laine, was used as the intro music for television Westerns. In the Blues Brothers recording, the main vocals are a deep alto with a soulful, upbeat tone. Backup singers create a layering to the song that makes it impossible to know how many men are involved.

"Don't try to understand 'em. Just rope, throw, and brand 'em. Soon we'll be livin' high and wide"

The song ends with men cheering over the sound of a thrashing whip.

The long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee torture report that was released to the public on Tuesday revealed some horrible physical torture performed by the CIA — waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and sexual assault. But it also detailed the agency's use of "sound disorientation techniques," as the report calls the music blared at detainees 24 hours a day. One of those was the Blues Brothers' "Rawhide." In a footnote, the report reveals:

'CIA records indicate that in the CIA interrogation of Ramzi bin al-Shibh...  "the Blues Brothers rendition of 'Rawhide' [was] played." CIA records state that bin al-Shibh's reaction to hearing the song was evidence of his conditioning, as bin al-Shibh "knows when he heard the music where he is going and what is going to happen."'

This is how, and why, the CIA used some of America's most beloved, iconic songs as an instrument of torture.

How the CIA used music to break prisoners

The report specifically mentions that music was used as a no-touch torture device at the COBALT detention facility. Detainees there, the report reads, "were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste."

We know from past torture reports from Guantanamo Bay that this means the same song or album is often played on repeat at very loud volumes to keep detainees awake for hours on end. A 2008 AP report on prisoner conditions at Guantanamo Bay said that music was used "to create fear, disorient . . . and prolong capture shock."

Not only was music used to wear down an opponent until they were "broken," but the CIA also, according to the report, used specific music as a trigger to a detainee that another interrogation was about to begin.

"Rawhide" is the only song the CIA report explicitly states was used as a torture technique. There wasn't, as far as we know, an formalized torture playlist. But in 2008, Justine Sharrock made a list of songs for Mother Jones that she learned from ex-soldiers and detainees had been used against detainees. Here are a few of them:

  • Dope: "Die MF Die", "Take Your Best Shot"
  • Eminem: "White America", "Kim"
  • Barney & Friends: theme song
  • Drowning Pool: "Bodies"
  • Metallica: "Enter Sandman"
  • Meow Mix: commercial jingle

Sharrock, and reports by The Guardian, reveal that the two most common genres of music played for detainees are metal and country, because they are distinctly American genres. In clubs from Stockholm to Tel Aviv, Rihanna and Drake songs are played. Metal and country music simply don't have the kind of world-wide proliferation as pop, and that makes them foreign sounds for detainees.

Music connects you to your culture — or severs you from it

"It is music’s capacity to take over your mind and invade your inner experience that makes it so terrifying," Thomas Keenan, director of the Human Rights Project at Bard College, told Al Jazeera.

Music, like many forms of art, is how we identify with our culture and our place in the world. Playing music that was intentionally American or foreign was intended to distance detainees from themselves and their culture, as well as to wear them down psychologically. By using mainly hard rock and metal music, detainees become inundated with sounds that are foreign to their ear and thus even more grating and isolating that something they might be better associated with.

"In a sense the music didn't bother me. I'd grown up in Britain, I knew what it was. But Afghan villagers, Yemenis, these guys were dazed, dazzled and confused, bewildered, completely out of it," Moazzam Begg, a British man who was arrested by the CIA in Pakistan in February 2002, wrote in his memoir.

In addition, torturers used what has been called "futility music", like Barney's "I love you" and the song from the Meow Mix commercial—songs so upbeat and repetitive that they can be used to "break" prisoners into thinking that resistance is futile.

I love you. You love me. We're a happy family. With a great big hug, and a kiss from me to you. Won't you say you love me too?

"You almost have to stop yourself from laughing because you realize this is actually torture," Shaddock said to Mother Jones.

The psychological effect of music torture

It's easy to slip into the mindset that torture by music is more of an irritant than a way of mentally abusing humans.

As Steve Asheim, the drummer for the death-metal band Deicide whose songs have been used at Guantanamo, told the Guardian: "Look at it this way. These guys are not a bunch of high school kids. They are warriors, and they're trained to resist torture. They're expecting to be burned with torches and beaten and have their bones broken. If I was a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay and they blasted a load of music at me, I'd be like, 'Is this all you got? Come on.' I certainly don't believe in torturing people, but I don't believe that playing loud music is torture either."

Asheim is wrong. Being kept in a pitch black room with rap and metal music blaring for weeks on end can have definite effects on the psychology of any formerly stable person. It is the weaponization of music.

"Whereas stress positions and the like are intended to make the vulnerabilities of a human being’s own body betray him and cause him pain, both 'futility music' and 'gender coercion' target the practices by which a human being’s cultural beliefs are embodied, performed, and made real as ethical practices," Suzanne G. Cusick wrote for the Journal of the Society for American Music in 2008.

"Imagine you are given a choice," Binyam Mohamed, a Guantanamo Bay detainee told The Guardian in 2008. "Lose your sight or lose your mind."

Mohamed's observation is based on his own experience, but it also has a firm psychological backing.

"Our brains automatically process music and try to figure out what comes next," Daniel Levitin, a psychology professor at McGill and author of This Is Your Brain on Music told NY Magazine in 2009. "Any Western music would have done the trick. These were tonal structures the detainees’ brains can’t figure out. They kept trying, and they kept failing. Just as if I made you listen to Chinese opera, it’d probably drive you crazy."

It did drive people crazy. The report counts several detainees who were "broken" by the music, and yet the report finds that enhanced interrogation didn't result in any important intelligence breakthroughs. All of this pain, and suffering, and intentional torture was worthless. CIA officers regularly called into question the torture techniques, and the Senate's investigation found that torture did not lead to actionable intelligence.

We used American music—songs like "Baby One More Time," "Raspberry Beret," and "Born in the U.S.A.," to mentally break detainees.

All for nothing.