Musicians (Finally) Say No to Music Torture

Well, that took a while. Nearly a year after George W. Bush's Republican party was voted out of office, and at least five years after reports first surfaced that music was being used in "War on Terror" facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo as part of a package of "enhanced interrogation technique," -- which, in any world other than the reality-defying one inhabited by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, would have been defined as torture -- several noted musicians have spoken out to condemn the practice.

As was reported widely yesterday, REM, Pearl Jam, Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, and other artists including Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, the Entrance Band, Joe Henry, Bonnie Raitt, Rise Against, and The Roots launched a formal protest against the use of music as torture.

In a statement, Tom Morello said, "Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured -- from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts -- playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney's idea of America, but it's not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used as a tactic against humanity sickens me -- we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now."

REM added, "We signed onto the campaign in complete support of President Obama and the military leaders who have called for an end to torture and to close Guantanamo. As long as Guantanamo stays open, America's legacy around the world will continue to be the torture that went on there. We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice -- to now learn that some of our friends' music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It's anti-American, period."

In a phone call, Rosanne Cash told the Washington Post, "I think every musician should be involved. It seems so obvious. Music should never be used as torture." Cash said she reacted with "absolute disgust" when she heard about it, adding, "It's beyond the pale. It's hard to even think about."

The protest was timed to coincide with a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the National Security Archive, an independent research institute in Washington D.C., which is seeking the declassification of all records related to the use of music in interrogation practices. It also coincided with a recent call by veterans and retired Army generals to shut Guantanamo, and TV and radio ads, which were launched this week by the National Campaign to Close Guantanamo, led by Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine.

Nevertheless, with the exception of Tom Morello (of Rage Against The Machine), whose music was used for torture, and who has been complaining about it since 2004, and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), whose music was also used, and who expressed his outrage last year when he first heard about it, few musicians have taken the issue on board before now.

Last July, when David Gray spoke out about his disgust that his music was used for torture, and the British-based legal charity Reprieve began campaigning about it, there was little interest. Christopher Cerf, who wrote the music for Sesame Street, (a music torture favorite) complained, but last December, when I wrote a detailed article about it, "A History of Music Torture in the 'War on Terror,'" I surveyed a generally indifferent industry, in which some of those whose music had been used were indifferent (Bob Singleton, for example, who wrote the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur, another music torture favorite), others (Metallica) were ambivalent, and others (Drowning Pool, for example) were positively gleeful about it.

From many others (including AC/DC, Aerosmith, Christina Aguilera, the Bee Gees, Neil Diamond, Don McLean, James Taylor, Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson, Meatloaf, Pink, Prince, Queen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen) there came nothing but an inappropriate silence, and even Eminem, whose anti-Bush credentials were clear from his songs "Mosh" and "White America," remained quiet, even though, as the British torture victim Binyam Mohamed explained about his time in the CIA's "Dark Prison" in Kabul in early 2004:

It was pitch black, and no lights on in the rooms for most of the time ... They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb ... There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this non-stop over and over, I memorized the music, all of it, when they changed the sounds to horrible ghost laughter and Halloween sounds. It got really spooky in this black hole ... Interrogation was right from the start, and went on until the day I left there. 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 ... Throughout my time I had all kinds of music, and irritating sounds, mentally disturbing. I call it

Don't get me wrong: it's good that so many diverse groups and individuals are now making their voices heard, as part of a push to close Guantanamo as soon as possible (and to try to hold President Obama to his promise to close the prison by January 22, 2010), but it would have had more impact before last November, when the torturers were still in the White House.

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