Although I could easily make this article about the most horrible songs ever written and how they get stuck in our heads, this is not what our topic is about today. In this article, we will discuss torture, its anatomy, and the role music can play in it. We will differentiate between different types of torture, how our senses can be used against us to cause us pain, the after-effects of torture, military uses of music in psychological operations, sonic technologies developed specifically for sieges and law enforcement applications, and how artists are speaking out against the use of their music in these operations. So strap yourself in and continue reading because you’re in for ride.
Pain and Perceptions of the Ear
The human ear is defenseless. It’s unable to keep sound out, so it must take in all it hears. Without earplugs, anti-noise headphones or other defensive technologies the ear is helpless to protect itself. One of the great advantages of using music as an implement of torture is that it leaves no physical mark. At least, so it seems. Because sound moves particles in the air and pushes the vibrations into our ear, the effect has a potential for danger. With an increase in the volume of sound, the vibrations push particles ever more strongly into our ear, thereby causing harm over time or immediately according to conditions. Here’s a brief description on how the ear can be damaged causing hearing loss and auditory malfunction.
Hair cells reside in the cochlea. Bundles of hair-like extensions, called stereo cilia, rest on top of them. When sound waves travel through the ears and reach the hair cells, the vibrations deflect off the stereo cilia, causing them to move according to the force and pitch of the vibration. Different forms of sound cause them to move in a variety of ways. For instance, a melodic piano tune would produce gentle movements, while heavy metal would generate faster, sharper motion. This motion triggers an electrochemical current that sends the information from the stereo cilia through the auditory nerves and eventually to the brain.
When you hear exceptionally loud noises, your stereo cilia can become damaged and mistakenly keep sending sound information to the auditory nerve cells. In the case of loud sound sources such as rock concerts and fireworks displays, ringing happens because the tips of some of your stereo cilia have actually broken off. You hear those false currents in the ringing in your ear (or head), called tinnitus. However, since you can grow these small tips back in about 24 hours, the ringing is often temporary.
So as you can see although music torture is classified along with other forms of psychological torture, the damage that high volume sound can really cause is actually physical. If music torture causes the loss of hearing, the remedy for this physical ailment is not months or years of counseling, but rather a hearing aid. Deafness is a physical malfunction, not a psychological or emotional issue.
The Differences between Physical and Psychological Torture
Torture is the practice or act of deliberately inflicting severe physical pain and possibly injury on a living being. Although psychological and animal tortures also exist, the forms of torture can vary greatly in duration from a few minutes to several days or even longer. Reasons for torture can also vary greatly and they can include punishment, revenge, political re-education, deterrence, interrogation, coercion, or a sadistic gratification of observing the tortured in agony and pain.
Physical torture methods have been used throughout recorded history and can range from a beating to the use of sophisticated custom designed devices such as the rack. Exceptional ingenuity has been shown in the invention of instruments and techniques for physical torture, which exploit medical knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the human body such as the sensitivity of nail beds to pressure, or of the soles of the feet to heat. Other types of torture can include sensory or sleep deprivation, restraint or being held in awkward or damaging positions, uncomfortable extremes of heat and cold, loud noises or any other means that inflicts severe physical or mental pain. Physical torture is plainly the inflicting of severe pain or suffering on a person.
Psychological torture, on the other hand, uses non-physical methods to cause emotional or mental suffering. Its effects are not immediately apparent unless they alter the behavior of the tortured person. Psychological torture is less well known than physical torture and tends to be subtle and much easier to conceal. In practice the distinctions between physical and psychological torture can often be blurred. In contrast to physical torture, psychological torture is directed at the psyche with calculated violations of psychological needs, along with deep damage to psychological structures and the breakage of beliefs underpinning normal sanity.
Music torture is clearly difficult to categorize. Physically, the ear can become damaged, although no blows were inflicted upon the victim. On the other hand, music torture can prevent a victim from maintaining a normally functioning consciousness. Psychological torture also includes deliberate use of extreme stressors and situations such as mock execution, shunning, violation of deep-seated social or sexual norms and taboos, or extended solitary confinement. Because psychological torture needs no physical violence to be effective, it is possible to induce severe psychological pain, suffering, and trauma with no externally visible effects. Torturers often inflict both types of torture in combination to compound the associated effects.
In fact, music torture is most effective when it is combined with other forms of torture such as mock executions, simulated drowning, sexual and religious humiliation, stress positions or sleep deprivation, the exploitation of prisoners’ phobias, the use of mind-altering drugs, hooding, forced nakedness, the use of dogs to frighten detainees, exposing prisoners to extreme heat and cold, physical assault and threatening the use of such techniques against a prisoner or a prisoner’s family.
In addition, music torture is sometimes used with medical, pharmacological, and even tickle torture. With medical torture, medical practitioners use torture to judge what victims can endure, to apply treatments that enhance torture, or act as torturers in their own right. Pharmacological torture is the use of drugs to produce psychological and physical pain or discomfort. Tickle torture is an unusual form of torture which can be both physically and psychologically painful. But more commonly, music torture is mixed with using
The Analysis and Effects of Music Torture
So what aspects of music make it possible to turn it into a weapon of torture? Three aspects come to mind and they are a) type of music, b) loudness, or volume, and c) the length of exposure. Often in military operations such as torture or interrogations, the music of choice is usually something which is extremely annoying or very stimulating. For example, several days after Paris Hilton announced that she would release an album, the Pentagon decided to buy 50,000 copies to use against insurgents in the Anbar province in Iraq. Other choices of music can range from various types of heavy metal such as Metallica to songs from children’s T.V. shows such as Barney and Sesame Street.
The annoyance or stimulating factor of the music used is further intensified when the loudness or volume level is deafeningly high. In some cases, the volume levels have been reported to be as high as 120 – 150 dB, which equates to the sound range of a chainsaw, thunderclap and even a jet take-off. In addition, the length of exposure further exacerbates the effect of the music torture by causing the disorientation of the other senses. In psychological operations and during interrogations, it’s quite common for a single song to be played at extremely loud volume levels for a 24 hour period. All of these factors combined are what give music torture its effectiveness as an assault weapon.
The consequences of music torture reach far beyond discomfort and immediate pain. Many victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes symptoms such as flashbacks (or intrusive thoughts), severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression and memory lapses. Torture victims often feel guilt and shame, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. Many feel that they have betrayed themselves or their friends and family. All such symptoms are normal human responses to abnormal and inhuman treatment.
For survivors, torture often leads to lasting mental and physical health problems. Music torture in particular is difficult to prove, especially when some time has passed between the event and a medical examination. Many torturers around the world use methods designed to have a maximum psychological impact while leaving no or only minimal physical traces. Typically deaths due to torture are shown in an autopsy as being due to “natural causes” like heart attack, inflammation, or embolism due to extreme stress.
Physical problems can be as wide-ranging as sexually transmitted diseases, muscular-skeletal problems, brain injury, post-traumatic epilepsy, dementia, and chronic pain syndromes. Mental health problems are equally wide-ranging, but the most common are post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorder. One of the most terrible psychological effects of torture is the killing of desire and curiosity, while the core feature of the post-traumatic landscape of torture is psychic deadness.
Gauntanamo captive Binyam Mohamed, who has since returned to England after years of imprisonment and torture, was interviewed on London’s Mail on Sunday. In this interview, he talked about how his sonic torture started in a Kabul prison in 2002 where he was held for eighteen months in complete darkness before his transfer to Gauntanamo in 2004. His body conveys no direct physical markings of his claims of abuse, but he relates how, “There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out a deafening, non-stop volume, 24 hours a day. They played the same CD for a month, The Eminem Show. When it was finished it went back to the beginning and started again. I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night.”
Military Uses of Music Assault
History’s most infamous musical assault occurred against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas (1993). The story goes that the FBI wore down the compound dwellers over the seven week siege, exploiting the defenselessness of the ear, by broadcasting sleep-preventing decibel levels of massively distorted music.
A few years earlier, the U.S. tried to force out Manuel Noriega from Panama City with a non-stop bombardment of heavy metal music by the likes of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. In December 1989, the United States invaded Panama. Noriega took refuge in the Holy See’s embassy on December 24, which was immediately surrounded by U.S. troops. After being continually attacked with hard rock music, including Van Halen’s hit song Panama and “The Howard Stern Show” for several days, Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
In Guantanamo Bay and prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq reports have surfaced claiming that interrogation techniques involve the uses of extremely loud music to soften prisoners. Reports from Guantanamo Bay also indicate that disturbing chicken noises were played over a loud-speaker for more than 25 hours to induce sleep deprivation. Loudspeaker systems are also used to communicate with enemy soldiers by intimidating them with frightening voices. Apparently, this is form of sonic attack is an effective method for getting insurgents to surrender, along with intimidating phone calls made directly to the families of insurgents and enemy commanding officers.
Amnesty International has also received reports describing various kinds of humiliation and torture prisoners and detainees the world over has endured. The most common methods often reported include prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, prolonged restraint in painful positions, hooding, exposure to loud music, and to bright lights.
Music Torture Technologies in Bullet Points
On November 18, 1998, now-defunct Synetics Corporation was contracted to produce a tightly focused beam of infrasound intended to produce effects that range from disabling to killing a target.
In 1999, Maxwell Technologies patented a HyperSonic Sound System, which is a highly directional device designed to control hostile crowds or disable hostage takers.
In 1999, Primex Physics International patented both the “Acoustic Blaster” and the Sequential Arc Discharge Acoustic Generator, which produce repetitive impulse waveforms of 165dB. Both sonic weapons are designed for “antipersonnel applications,” produce their effects with high intensity impulsive sound waves by electrical means, and are believed to be controllable at a distance of 50 feet or more.
American Technology Corporation has also development the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, 10 years earlier. This is a weapon capable of projecting a ‘strip of sound’ (15 to 30 inches wide) at an average of 120 dB (maxing at 151 dB). Because the LRAD is designed to hail ships, issue battlefield or crowd-control commands, or directs an attention-getting and highly irritating deterrent tone for behavior modification, its sonic projection is intelligible from 500 to 1,000 meters away. Wielded by the 361st PsyOps company, the LRAD was deployed to prepare the battlefield in the siege of Falluja in November of 2004. The device was armed with Metallica’s “Hells’ Bells” and “Shoot to Thrill.”
Artists Protest the Use of Music Torture
Honestly, positions are mixed among musicians in regard to the use of their music in torture. Many support the military position of do whatever it takes to stop the terrorists, while others are deeply opposed to the use of any form of torture on a humanitarian basis. For example, the Associated Press reported that Stevie Benton of the group Drowning Pool said, “I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.” My position, as a citizen and not as an artist, is based on the concept of political freedom, so I support any government that respects the freedoms of its citizens. However, when it comes to crime, I want law enforcement and the judicial system to prosecute those who violate the rights of others with an appropriate fine or incarceration. And in regard to war, military law should apply to combatants captured on the battlefield. In such cases, both forfeit their rights.
In contrast, the Associated Press also reported that various musicians were coordinating their objections to the use of their music in interrogations through an initiative called Zero dB. Zero dB is an initiative against music torture set up by legal charity Reprieve. This charity represents over thirty prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Zero dB aims to stop torture music by encouraging widespread condemnation of the practice of music torture by calling on governments and the UN to uphold and enforce the Convention against Torture and other relevant treaties.
The initiative is backed by the Musicians Union which is calling on British musicians to also voice their outrage 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 Zero dB. Participating musicians will include minutes of silence in their concerts to draw their audience’s attention to the USA’s use of deafening music against captives.
Among the musicians united in their objections were Christopher Cerf, a composer for the children’s show Sesame Street, Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Others include R.E.M., The Roots, Rise Against, Rosanne Cash, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, Trent Reznor, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, the Entrance Band, and Joe Henry. Many others are sure to follow.
Royalty Payments from Music Torture
While the Zero dB initiative seems really cool, there just seems to be something wrong with the idea that those engaged in music torture ought to pay royalties to the musician’s whose songs are used in the torture process. The Guardian reported that the US military may owe royalty payments to the artists whose works were played to the captives. For those artists who do not want their music to be used for this purpose, it’s definitely appropriate for the military to stop using their music on an immediate basis. However, once the military has ceased to use their music in torture sessions, these artists shouldn’t return to receive royalty checks. On the other hand, artists who do want their music to be used in torture sessions, for whatever reason, should be given royalty payments, unless they arrange pro-bono usage rights to the military.