Playing an annoying song over and over to get someone to spill their guts might sound like a gag from a Mel Brooks movie, but it’s actually become a standard practice. An article by an NYU musicologist in the Journal of the Society for American Music details how music was regularly used in interrogations on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as a method of inducing disorientation to get suspects to talk without inflicting physical force. Here are some of the songs used by military and law enforcement entities to get their suspects to sing.
It should stand as no surprise that a large majority of the songs used in Guantanamo Bay consisted of seemingly patriotic ditties like Springsteen’s most famous American anthem. One Spanish citizen accused of being linked to the terrorist network Al-Qaida claimed his interrogators played this song the majority of the time during his entire two year stay in the Cuban prison. However, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the UK human rights charity Reprieve, noted that it may not have been the most patriotic choice since “the message of the song is harshly critical of American policy, condemning the war in Vietnam and describing a veteran’s efforts to find work.”
Mohammed al Qahtani, the man many believe was the “20th hijacker” of the Sept. 11 attacks, got one of two wake-up calls during his stay in Guantanamo Bay: dripping water on his head or an earful of Aguilera’s sexually charged lyrics. This was combined with other interrogation techniques, such as prolonged strip searches and invasion of space by a female. He would admit he met with bin Laden, but later deny this admission. Days later, many of these interrogation methods were halted after military lawyers raised questions about their efficacy.
One of history’s most tragic standoffs also featured one of history’s most famous musical standoffs. Cult leader David Koresh’s battle with the FBI in 1993 featured a back and forth barrage of ballad bombardments. Koresh wore down his followers by blasting his own failed pop songs at eardrum-busting levels. When the FBI moved in and cut the power to the compound, they fired back with Nancy Sinatra’s depressing girl power pop ballad along with a monotonous mix of Tibetan chants, cavalry bugle beats and 1950s-style Christmas carols for nearly seven weeks straight. FBI officials said they rejected the idea of using Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” because of fears that some of the cult members might actually like it.
Heavy metal songs have long been a favorite tool of military interrogators. They’re loud, often repetitive and (as any parent with steadily reduced hearing can attest) can even create feelings of physical pain or discomfort to the ears and head. Troops used “long range acoustic devices” to blast the Australian metal group’s ballads throughout the region to increase the vulnerability of Iraqi insurgents. The LRADs, developed by the American Technology Corporation, have also been used to repel pirate attacks in Somalia and throw sound at bystanders at stores and conventions for product displays.
The work of the world’s most famous lounge lizard might be Jack Bauer’s first choice of music in an interrogation room. Actually, the military didn’t use Manilow’s music to get their suspects to sing. The New Zealand town of Christchurch recently blasted the crooner’s tunes throughout their central mall district to drive away the local punks who had been littering the area with graffiti, drinking in public and doing drugs. It sounds like a perfect plan because after all, he may write the songs that make the whole world sing, but they also make young kids’ heads explode.
The Guardian newspaper in London called this sugary lump of fear inducing madness the most “overused” song in the U.S. interrogator’s arsenal. Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, however, used the sappy kids’ show theme song as “futility music” to convince detainees of the futility of maintaining their silence. One United Kingdom human rights group protested President George W. Bush’s visit to England by blasting the song in his general direction. Now that’s a second strike.
Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, humorist, reporter and piano man living in Texas. He can be found on the web at dannygallagher.net, on MySpace at myspace.com/dannygahatesmyspace and on Twitter at twitter.com/thisisdannyg.
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