From Panama to Guantanamo: Music as Torture

When Panama’s General Manuel Noreiga took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in December 1989, the US military brought out the big guns.  Those guns included Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Presley, Styx, Billy Idol, The Doors, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Boston, Funkadelic, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Steve Miller, Whitesnake, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, AC/DC and Pink Floyd.

A few days earlier US President George Bush had launched Operation Just Cause, an invasion of Panama aimed at deposing military dictator Noriega.  The US Commander in Chief detailed the justifications for the invasion hours before the operation commenced.  They were 1) to safeguard the lives of Americans living in Panama, 2) to defend Panama’s human rights and democracy, 3) to combat drug trafficking and 4) to protect the Torrijos-Carter treaties.  Those treaties transferred control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama on 1 January 2000 and maintained the US’s right to defend the canal from any threat to its neutral use with military force.

The United States government had supported Noriega until a military crackdown on protesters and declaration of emergency rule in July 1987 after which then President Ronald Reagan applied sanctions.  Six months later courts in Tampa and Miami, Florida, charged Noriega with drug trafficking.

The music was broadcast from a military radio station that allowed soldier requests from Boxing Day until 29 December.  President Bush, clearly not a rock fan, described the tactic as “irritating and petty”.  It was ordered by General Thurman to act as a “sound barrier” to prevent journalists eavesdropping on negotiations for Noriega’s handover.  But it was also a useful form of psychological pressure on both Vatican Embassy staff and Noriega himself, and many considered that to be the true motivation.

The tactic has continued to be used by the US, including on those detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, despite a United Nations ban on the use of loud music during interrogations.  Particularly popular songs include AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Bells’, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Eminem’s ‘White America’, Nine Inch Nails’ ‘March of the Pigs’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and the Sesame Street song.  Other artists frequently cited as used in military interrogations (or to prevent inmates from communicating with each other according to some US military sources) include Queen, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Don McLean, Marilyn Manson, The Bee Gees, Barney the Dinosaur and Tupac.

Some of the songs chosen are perfect, lyrically and aurally, for their (despicable) use.  ‘March of the Pigs’ particularly stands out (though it makes me love it no less).  Whoever thought of using Britney Spears must be a military strategist of the highest order, and severely sadistic.  Others are less appropriate (for want of a better term).  ‘Born in the USA’ is, of course, congenitally misused.  Eminem’s ‘White America’ is a dig at the angry disaffection of white American youth as personified my Mr Mathers himself and really a very odd choice.

A campaign called zero dB, calling for an end of the use of music as torture, was started in 2008.  It is supported by Massive Attack, Bruce Springsteen, The Doves, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, The Magic Numbers, Rosanne Cash and others.  Its main success seems to have been increasing awareness rather than securing government commitments to halt the practice.

Opera-loving Noriega surrendered on January 3 1990.  He completed his sentence in the United States in September 2007.   He has been in a French jail since February 2010 when he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.

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