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“Hang ‘Em High”: Music as a “Futility Technique” in Panama

October 30, 2009

“I say nothing goes better with the Beatles than a good beating,” joked Stephen Colbert as he introduced the theme of his show last night–music as torture.   Country singer Rosanne Cash made an appearance to discuss a new campaign by a coalition of musicians to protest the use of popular music as an interrogation technique at the Guantanamo Bay base and to obtain the declassification of still secret government information on the playlists and strategy of  employing music as a torture device.

“Why would you want to know?” Colbert asked. “Aren’t you glad the government is finally talking an interest in the arts?”  The government had done the opposite of art appreciation, Cash replied. They were using music “as a weapon to hurt someone. . . . It’s wrong.”

With the support of the National Security Archive, the musicians are seeking the release of still-secret US government records that document how loud music was used as a “futility technique” to soften up detainees at the base.

Guantanamo, Bahgram, and Abu Ghraib are not the first places where the high-volume, music-as-sleep deprivation device has been used, however.  In 1995, the Archive obtained an interesting Pentagon public affairs “after action” report on “Operation Just Cause”–the invasion of Panana. A section of the report shed light on how Rock and Roll was used to blast deposed strongman Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy where he had taken refuge after US troops landed.

The South Com Network radio station, beamed usually to US personnel in the Canal Zone, broadcast live during the invasion.  On December 27, according to the report, “a member of the PSYOPS team from Fort Bragg called to tell us what they were doing with their loud speakers.” Soon the radio station began receiving requests from troops for a “musical message for Noriega.” The playlist of almost 100 requested songs was reprinted, which included such appropriate titles as: “Wanted Dead or Alive,” by Bon Jovi; “Wanted Man,” by Molly Hatchet; “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandelas; “Hang ‘Em High,” by Van Halen, and “Give it Up,” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band.  After close to ten days of cranked up, deafening music blasting at the Embassy, Noriega gave it up, came out, and turned himself in.

There is some indication that the song selection at Guantanamo Bay also came about in an ad hoc fashion, with guards and interrogators at the base drawing music from their own iPods.  Whether that is true or not will only be known when all the secret documents on the use of music-as-torture are declassified.

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