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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 20, 2010


Tobias Rapp, Spiegel, Germany - For years, US interrogators at Guantanamo used painfully loud music on prisoners at Camp Delta. Rock musicians like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and civil rights organization are demanding an investigation into the practice.

In May 2003, a military policeman came to Ruhal Ahmed's cell in Camp Delta at the military prison in Guantanamo and took him to an interrogation room. There, he was forced to squat while the M.P. tied his leg irons to a ring set in the floor. Then his hands were placed behind his back so that his handcuffs could also be attached to the floor ring. In this "stress position," the prisoner is unable to sit, stand or kneel, and can only crouch in an intermediate position that quickly causes cramping. Ahmed was familiar with this treatment, which was part of the "standard operating procedure" used to prepare prisoners for interrogation.

Ahmed had been in Guantanamo for more than a year. For weeks, the interrogators had been asking him the same question, again and again: What were he and two of his friends, who were captured with him, doing in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001? All three men are British Muslims. Ahmed's family originally immigrated to Great Britain from what is now Bangladesh. The men were referred to as the "Tipton Three," a reference to the small city in the British Midlands where they were from. On this particular day, there was also a boom box in the small, eight-square-meter (86-square-foot) interrogation cell. The soldier inserted a CD by rapper Eminem, turned up the volume and left.

"I thought: What's going on now? Did he forget his boom box?" says Ahmed. "When he returned, I asked him: 'What's this about? Why are you playing Eminem?' He looked at me and said nothing."

The next time Ahmed was taken to the interrogation cell, the music was heavy metal instead of Eminem. The volume was earsplitting and the music was played for hours, even entire days. Sometimes they also stuck a stroboscope in front of his face. The cell was dark and he could see nothing but the flashing lights in his eyes. The interrogators also turned down the temperature on the air-conditioning, forcing Ahmed to endure hours of the music and flashing lights in an ice-cold room. He wasn't permitted to use the bathroom and was left to urinate or defecate in his pants. The shackles caused his legs to swell up while the deafening music continued incessantly.

Ahmed, now 28, is back at home in Tipton, a small city near Birmingham. He has a short, trimmed beard, wears a tracksuit and speaks with a northern English accent. His wife, who is pregnant, opens the door of their apartment in a working-class neighborhood, where their two-year-old daughter is running around. Two of Ahmed's younger brothers also live in the house.

He was released in March 2004, after spending more than two years in the American military prison. Director Michael Winterbottom's award-winning film "Road to Guantanamo" is based on the experiences of the Tipton Three -- and a journey that went terribly wrong.

The three friends had traveled to Pakistan to attend a wedding in September 2001. Ahmed was 20 at the time. With a thirst for adventure, they naively crossed the border into Afghanistan, even though the "War on Terror" was already in the works. As they tried to return to Pakistan with a group of Taliban, fighters with the Northern Alliance arrested the three men, and they were eventually turned over to the Americans. They arrived in Guantanamo in early 2002.

"When I tell people that music can be torture, they look at me and think I must have a screw loose. How can art, which gives people so much pleasure, be torture? But it's true. You can handle normal torture, but not music torture. I told them everything they wanted to hear: that I had met bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and that I knew what their plans were. But I just said it to make them stop."

In Guantanamo, Afghanistan and in Iraq, and in other American secret prisons, military and intelligence personnel tortured terrorism suspects. Their methods included water-boarding and sleep deprivation, as well as loud music. Prisoners were strung up by their wrists for days while being blasted with music by artists like Dr. Dre. They were bound, with headphones placed on their heads, and forced to listen to Meat Loaf for hours. They were locked into wooden boxes and forced to endure "Saturday Night Fever" by the Bee Gees for entire nights at a time. Ironically music, the art form that has often been used to change the world and -- at events like Woodstock, Live Aid and Germany's Rock Against the Far Right -- has sometimes succeeded, was turned into a weapon in the war against terrorism.

Some musicians have now sharply criticized the practice, including the British trip-hoppers Massive Attack, American industrial rock musician Trent Reznor and country star Rosanne Cash. They are demanding that pop not be used as a weapon, and they want to know how their music is being used in American prisons. . .

The use of a music as a weapon isn't anything new. For instance, for the past few years authorities at the main railway station in Hamburg have used piped-in classical music to drive away junkies from the plaza in front of the station.

When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, fleeing from US troops in 1989, took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, the soldiers bombarded the building for days with hard rock and other music.

And in 1993, when the FBI was preparing to storm a ranch near Waco, Texas, where members of a sect had barricaded themselves in their compound, the agents blared the Nancy Sinatra hit "These Boots Were Made For Walking" from loudspeakers. The purpose was simple: to wear down the besieged sect members. . .

Sometimes, says former British prisoner Ruhal Ahmed, they would come into the room and shout questions into his ear. But often no one came into the room, and the constant music only increased the sensation that the agony would never end.

"It's as if you had very bad migraines, and then someone shows up and yells at you -- and take that times a thousand," says Ahmed. "You can't concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You're pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side. And once you cross that line, there's no going back. I saw that threshold several times.". . .

The list of songs used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo reads like a book about popular culture of the last 30 years.

There are triumphant songs, songs used to celebrate American victory and constantly rub in the notion that the prisoners were the defeated, songs like Queen's "We Are the Champions" or Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," which is still misunderstood as a salute to American greatness and self-certainty. The song "Babylon," by British soft-rocker David Gray, probably also fits into this category.

There are the torture songs, the Heavy Metal and Industrial music, like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" or "March of the Pigs," by Nine Inch Nails -- music deliberately selected to hurt the prisoners.

And there is the male-oriented, top-of-the-charts music, the country music, the mainstream rock and the hip hop -- music the soldiers listen to while on patrol, partly to drown out their surroundings. And because it's the kind of music they like to listen to, it doesn't bother them as much when they constantly hear it coming from the interrogation cells.

Finally, there is pop music, songs by artists like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears that were used for the purpose of sexual humiliation -- as a part of wider scenarios in which the prisoners were debased.

"The fact that our music has been co-opted in this barbaric way is really disgusting," Tom Morello, guitarist with the left-leaning band Rage Against the Machine, told the American music magazine Spin. "If you're at all familiar with the ideological leanings of the band and its support for human rights, that's really hard to stand.". . .

There are technical developments in the pop music of the last 30 years that have made it suitable for use in interrogation cells in the first place. Take, for example, the obsessive efforts of sound engineers to extract every last bit of the frequencies using sophisticated studio techniques.

And in the fringe zones of pop culture, such as industrial music, bands like Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV were already experimenting, back in the 1980s, with the idea that music can also express the dark side of power and violence.

"When you go to a concert or a club, you're looking for loud music and flashing lights. You want to be transported into ecstasy. We experienced exactly the same thing, except that it was turned on its head," says Ahmed. "You could call it black ecstasy."

In 2004, after more than two years, Ahmed was released from Guantanamo into a world in which music is everywhere, in every commercial, in every shop and in every taxicab. But Ahmed says that it doesn't bother him.

He says that he saw many people who almost went insane, people in the camp who would bang their heads against the wall and try to kill themselves when they were brought back from the interrogations. When Ahmed returned to the United Kingdom, a psychologist told him that he was probably lucky to be so young.

An enormous multimedia system stands in the couple's living room, which Ahmed bought with the money he earned working on "Road to Guantanamo." When he goes on the Internet he uses the large flat-screen TV on the wall as his monitor. He uses Facebook to stay in touch with other ex-prisoners. He says that a former Guantanamo guard recently contacted him through Facebook and wrote that he wanted to apologize. The two men went to a restaurant together.

A shelf in Ahmed's apartment contains a Koran and a few old cassettes with recordings of prayers. He doesn't own a single CD.


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