Thu, 11 Dec 2008

The sound of music torture

Last year British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith suggested that musicians use copyright law to hold the American government to account for its use of music to torture detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. I wrote about this idea, about the use of music as a weapon and moral rights for El Reg in Fighting torture with copyright - Moral musos work to rule. (See also the related posts on this blog: readers' follow-ups suggestions such as for the US Army to run its own music label, and the 'Bring Byam Home' song; Binyam Mohamed is still held in Guantanamo and a victim of music torture: 'I could not take the headphones off as I was cuffed. I had to sleep with the music on and even pray with it.') Earlier this year, Clive Stafford Smith wrote Welcome to 'the disco' in The Guardian about 'torture lite' - music played at excruciating volume over and over.

Yesterday, on human rights day, Reprieve, the legal charity of which Clive Stafford Smith is the director, launched the Zero dB project:

Zero dB – against music torture

On the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights musicians are uniting against the use of music to torture by joining The Zero dB project (zero decibels = silence) was launched today by legal charity Reprieve which represents over 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Many of Reprieve’s clients - and hundreds more held in US secret prisons across the world - have been subjected to deafening music played for hours, days and often months on end in order to ‘break’ them.

Zero dB aims to stop torture music by encouraging widespread condemnation of the practice and by calling on governments and the UN to uphold and enforce the Convention Against Torture and other relevant treaties.

Zero dB is backed by the Musicians Union which is calling on British musicians to voice their outrage against the use of music to torture.

The UN and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music in interrogations, but it is still being widely used. Prisoners describe the experience as harder to bear even than physical torture.

Reprieve’s client Binyam Mohamed from North London - still held in Guantanamo Bay - suffered 18 months of torture in a Moroccan secret prison. During this time his penis was routinely slashed with razor blades, yet he describes the sensation of feeling his sanity slip during psychological torture as even more horrific. He spoke to Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith, his lawyer, in Guantánamo Bay:

“They hung me up. I was allowed a few hours of sleep on the second day, then hung up again, this time for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb.... There was loud music, [Eminem’s] ‘Slim Shady’ and Dr. Dre for 20 days.... The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night.... Plenty lost their minds. I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors, screaming their heads off.”

There is a long and growing list of supporters who are outraged by the use of music to torture: James Lavelle of UNKLE, Matthew Herbert, Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, Massive Attack, The Magic Numbers, Elbow and Bill Bailey have so far pledged their support of the initiative and made statements against the use of music to torture.

Musicians and the wider public are making their own silent protests against music torture which are being shown on A series of silent protests and actions are planned through 2009.

Visit to record your silent protest now.

Music that has been used to torture includes:

• AC/DC - Hell's Bells
• AC/DC - Shoot to Thrill
• Aerosmith
• Barney the Purple Dinosaur - theme tune
• Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
• Britney Spears
• Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA
• Christina Aguilera - Dirrty
• David Gray - Babylon
• Deicide - Fuck Your God
• Don McLean - American Pie
• Dope - Die MF Die
• Dope - Take Your Best Shot
• Dr. Dre
• Drowning Pools - Bodies
• Eminem - Kim
• Eminem - Slim Shady
• Eminem - White America
• Li'l Kim
• Limp Bizkit
• Matchbox Twenty - Gold
• Meat Loaf
• Metallica - Enter Sandman
• Neil Diamond - America
• Nine Inch Nails - March of the Pigs
• Nine Inch Nails - Mr. Self-Destruct
• Prince - Raspberry Beret
• Queen - We are The Champions
• Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the Name Of
• Red Hot Chilli Peppers
• Saliva - Click Click Boom
• Sesame Street - theme tune
• Tupac - All Eyes on Me

Surprisingly not all musicians are opposed to this use of their music, James Hetfield, co-founder of Metallica said in an NPR Music interview: 'There's a pride also. It's culturally offensive to [Iraqis], freedom. [...] If they're not used to freedom, then I'm glad to be a part of their exposure'. (At that point of the interview he does appear serious). Most musicians prefer to remain silent on this issue, hiding behind the fact that they don't have much control on their music once published. Reprieve lists above some musicians outraged by the use of music as torture. Also, the Society for Ethnomusicology condemns the use of music as an instrument of torture, and the Musicians Union is backing the Zero dB project. British singer-songwriter David Gray is one musician who openly condemned such use: 'It's shocking that there isn't more of an outcry. [...] It's disgusting, really. Anything that draws attention to the scale of the horror and how low we've sunk is a good thing.'

Intriguingly, the expression 'torture lite', used for music played at excruciating volume over and over, evokes a scale ranging from no torture to torture heavy. Andy Smith pointed out, in Orwell's Sound of Silence, that Orwell had found non-stop muzak, played even at low volume well below anything used by torturer, was enough to affect everyone's thoughts:

“On a pleasure cruise or in a Lyons Corner House one already gets something more than a glimpse of this future paradise. Analysed, its main characteristics are these:

  1. One is never alone.
  2. One never does anything for oneself.
  3. One is never within sight of wild vegetation or natural objects of any kind.
  4. Light and temperature are always artificially regulated.
  5. One is never out of the sound of music.”

Items one and two are recurring themes throughout Orwell’s writing—most notably in the concept of “Big Brother is watching” in 1984. However, it is the fifth item that bears further examination because, for him:

“The music—and if possible it should be the same music for everybody—is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude.”

Back in contemporary London, 'Live music is now a threat to the prevention of terrorism'; this according to UK Music chief Feargal Sharkey comminting on the implementation of a risk assessment policy for vetting live music. Organisers must complete Form 696 with personal details of all artists, music style to be played and some information on the audience. This form has to be sent to the police at least 14 days in advance.

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