Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi, Ethiopian citizen and legal resident in Great Britain since 1994, was accused of colluding with high-ranking “illegal combatants,” i.e. suspected terrorists. After an extended stay in Afghanistan, he was arrested at Karachi Airport in April 2002. In Morocco, he was subjected to several hours of torture: the guards cut his penis with a scalpel and let him bleed. This procedure was repeated twenty to thirty times over eighteen months. While his wounds healed, Binyam Mohammed was shackled to the floor and headphones were placed on his head. He was forced to listen to Meat Loaf and Aerosmith. Over the eighteen-month period, he neither saw daylight nor was he permitted a quiet night’s sleep. As an interrogator told him: “We’re going to change your brain.” Later, within a “dark prison” in Afghanistan, he was suspended from the ceiling, for three days and three nights, while being subjected to Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” and Halloween laughter. His legs swelled up and deformed to the point that they were unrecognizable.

Music torture is one of several techniques known as “no-touch torture,” the aim of which is to shatter the prisoner’s psyche. Unlike burns, broken limps, and chopped off fingers, this method leaves no scars on the fleshy parts of the body, which otherwise help torture survivors to document their maltreatment. Extreme temperatures, feigned drowning (waterboarding), sleep deprivation, and loud music leave no visible traces, just as a graffito in Camp Nama stated, “No Blood – No Foul!”

No-touch torture was developed for the modern surveillance society where images are quickly disseminated. In dictatorships, mutilated bodies are exhibited to demonstrate power and might, but that wouldn’t work in democracies. Here, torture programs operate secretly using methods disguised by euphemisms such as “harsh interrogation.” In September 2001, the then-vice president Dick Cheney announced that the United States would work “on the dark side.”

After 9/11, music torture was used at Abu Ghraib prison (twenty miles west of Baghdad, Iraq), Guantánamo (Cuba), Bagram Air Force Base (Afghanistan), Camp Nama (Baghdad, Iraq), Forward Operating Base Tiger (Al-Qaim, Iraq), Mosul Air Force Base (Iraq), Camp Cropper (Baghdad International Airport) and other CIA “dark sites.”

As in most of these cases, the tools used for torture are the everyday objects found in any military camp, such as sandbags, containers, and CDs. Although the CIA recommended use of “loud music,” no officially approved track-lists exist: the music used was from the soldiers’ iPods, notebooks, and CDs. Ordinary everyday equipment attracts little attention; but make no mistake, the misuse of music as “sonic coercion” is part of the “standard operating procedure,” as musicologist Suzanne Cusick has argued.

One of the best-known examples of a track used for the purposes of torture is the I Love You song from the American children’s TV program Barney & Friends. This song, allegedly, was an element of the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training of United States elite soldiers, during which they are subjected to the methods recommended by the Kubark manual to build up soldiers’ power of resistance.

Other examples show that the music used for the purposes of torture is identical to that listened to by the soldiers themselves in order to heighten their sense of camaraderie prior to dangerous missions and patrols. The song Reign in Blood by the popular heavy metal band Slayer is just one example of the broad selection of rap, rock, pop, country, heavy metal, etc., which is part of the everyday life of GIs. Other songs used in torture, and played in 24-, 48-, or 72-hour loops – and occasionally for even longer periods – are Saturday Night Fever (Bee Gees), Shoot to Thrill (AC/DC), All Eyes on Me (Tupac), America (Neil Diamond), Raspberry Beret (Prince), Metallica’s Enter Sandman, and the Meow Mix advertising jingle. There are many, many more.

There is a variety of styles of music torture. The documentary The Road to Guantánamo illustrates a scenario of small, roughly made plywood rooms, in one of which a prisoner has been bolted to the floor by his ankles and wrists so that he is forced to crouch crookedly in a common stress position. At Camp Nama, such a room was called the “black room” due to its windowless, black-painted interior. Prisoners were forced to stand in stress positions while music blasted from a boom box on a table. At Forward Operating Base Tiger, the sound system was of such high quality that it was used for the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations at the base as well.

Stress positions are extremely painful, for when the prisoner attempts to move, he’ll inflict even more pain upon himself. Moreover, as Suzanne Cusick writes, the deafening music works like “mental chains,” which makes it impossible to maintain psychological resistance to physical pain. The music booming in the skull drowns out one’s thoughts, and one loses the ability to think straight. The bombardment of the senses, in this case hearing, combines with other sensory attacks, also known as cluster-techniques. These involve combinations of stress positions, extreme temperatures, strobe lights, and loud Western popular music.

Music torture can be described as a mix of cultural humiliation (psychological distress) and sonic bombardment (physical distress). The music, played at high intensity, does not go beyond the pain threshold measured in decibels, but remains below it at about 79 dB. The intention is not to destroy the prisoner’s sense of hearing as, after all, he is expected to provide answers when interrogated, the main objective of the torture being information gathering.

At Mosul Air Force Base, a music-torture cell (“the disco”) was constructed inside a shipping container that stood outside the camp in the heat of the desert. Accompanied by thundering death metal music that echoed inside the metallic interior of the container, the chief interrogator, Tony Lagouranis, shouted questions into the empty sandbag thrown over the prisoner’s head. In his book co-authored by Allen Mikaelian, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq, he describes how sometimes the music put him under such personal stress that he had to cut short interrogations lest he lose his temper and chop off the prisoner’s fingers.

Torture victims have reported that, after long periods of torture, they can neither remember their own name, nor visualize the faces of their relatives. In other words, music is an effective way of “drowning out prisoners’ thoughts.” As prisoners lose sense of self, are likely to forget who they are, and are unable to remember those they love the most, what else might they forget? Thus, it makes sense to question the quality of the information that torture produces, what is the truth-value of this information? Is it not notoriously obsolete? Does bad “intel” not damage the work of intelligence offices around the globe? Had there been a ticking bomb, it would have gone off a long time ago, and all the torture would have been good for absolutely nothing.