You know how whenever anyone brings up the topic of US sonic weapons and music torture, someone always says, “What do they do, just turn on WFMU? Hahahahaha.” No? Maybe you hang out with smarter people than I do. On the other hand, WFMU has always been a leader in the irritainment industry; some of my favorite DJs, people I’ve been listening to for decades, do shows I’ve never been able to listen to all the way through. So I got to wondering—what is on the playlist when our government wants to break the will of its enemies? (“Enemies” being defined in the broadest sense, of course, in that the term has included US citizens minding their own business in their own homes.)
Manuel Noriega vs. Van Halen: Noriega was Military Governor of Panama from 1984-89, when elections were held with results he didn’t like. Also, he refused to help Oliver North with the whole Nicaraguan Contra thing. (Noriega had been working with the CIA since the 1950s.) Meanwhile, US troops stationed around the Panama Canal were conducting a series of ludicrously named “operations,” and then a Marine Lieutenant got killed, and then the US invaded, which was condemned as a flagrant violation of international law by the UN. Noriega fled to the Vatican embassy in Panama City, where US troops laid siege in Operation Nifty Package. (I am not kidding about that name.) They stood around outside playing high-volume rock music, specifically the Van Halen song “Panama.” A week later, Noriega surrendered.
David Koresh vs. Tibetan Monks: Koresh was the leader of a fringe Christian group called the Branch Dividians, who lived in a compound outside Waco, Texas. The group supported itself by running a retail gun business, and its gun dealers-members were always careful to have the proper paperwork to ensure everything was legal. Because of unsubstantiated rumors of other illegal activities within the compound (e.g., polygamy and statutory rape), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms composed a bogus complaint against the Davidian gun business and obtained a search warrant for the compound. When agents went to serve the warrant, on Sunday, February 28, 1993, things went very wrong: There was shooting, people died, and the FBI took over and began a siege of the compound that lasted until April 19. (For the whole story, see the film Waco: Rules of Engagement or, you know, the Wikipedia article.) During the siege, the FBI tried to “break” Koresh (whom they already considered to be crazy) by playing Tibetan religious chants at night to keep him from sleeping. Various Tibetan groups complained about this use of their sacred music.
The FBI also played Mitch Miller Christmas carols, an Andy Williams album, and Nancy Sinatra.
Gitmo Detainees vs. Bruce Springsteen: In spite of the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights having banned the use of loud music in interrogations, the US claims it doesn’t cause any “long-term effects,” so they just keep doing it. At Guantanamo Bay (which is in Cuba—how do we have a prison in another country where we don’t even have diplomatic relations?), interrogators followed the protocols of a CIA document that specified, for example, that music “as loud as a jackhammer” could be played for up to two hours while a prisoner lay chained to the floor, naked and defecating on himself. Interrogators believed that “culturally offensive” music was especially effective, so from at least 2003 to 2008 the Gitmo playlist included songs by Metallica, AC/DC, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, and—of course!—Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
Abu Ghraib, et al. vs. Barney the Dinosaur: In addition to what went on/is going on at Gitmo, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross have both documented ongoing torture of prisoners in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. So has just about everyone else: Starting in 2004, there was massive US media coverage of the sickening abuses at Abu Ghraib. Although the US had ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, the Bush administration maintained that we weren’t doing anything wrong and that sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks, etc., isn’t hurting anybody. Although it was probably the least of their problems, the Abu Ghraib prisoners were also subjected to Deicide, Dr. Dre, and the Barney theme song.
Naturally, some musicians object to their work being used this way. The British charity Reprieve worked with the Musician’s Union to establish the Zero dB Initiative against music torture. And in the film Songs of War: Music as a Weapon, the composer Christopher Cerf expresses first his bewilderment and then his outrage when he discovers his music for Sesame Street is being used to “break” suspects. Also: royalties. The British newspaper The Guardian pointed out that the US military might owe royalties to the artists whose music they’ve played over and over and over and over, really, really, really loud.