Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Can musicians' clout shut down Guantánamo?

A group of musicians has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out whether their music was played at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. In my opinion, wielding music as a weapon or as an instrument of torture is a gross perversion of its significance.

The Doonesbury Flashbacks that appeared in the Record-Bee this week provided a fictional illustration of music forming a soundtrack to U.S. conflict. Toggle, a young soldier who has been deployed to Iraq , explains that he creates battle mixes for the soldiers in his brigade. "Whatever the guys want. Mostly rap and heavy metal -- evil, heart pumpin' stuff.

"If we're headed for bandit country, I need ear-bleed music like Slipknot to get pumped," Toggle explains to his passenger. "But if the mission's mellow, like today, I like bar bands."

Many of us can relate to Toggle selecting music that compliments his day. We load our iPods with our favorite tunes and retreat from the outside world into an audio sanctuary. Some of us even mix compilation CDs for our friends. Selecting and sharing your favorite tunes is an intensely personal communication.

But the use of music by our U.S. military goes far beyond soldiers' personal enjoyment. The American Civil Liberties Union has compiled numerous documents through a five-year-old Freedom of Information Act request. More than 130,000 pages of official government documents detail ways in which music was used as a method of interrogation.

The ACLU also interviewed former Guantánamo detainees about their experiences in U.S. custody.

"[W]hen they have something [like heavy metal] to replace your thoughts …it’s extremely hard to concentrate on things and it would make you hallucinate and it would make you see… things that is not there," said Ruhal Ahmed, a 27-year–old, life-long British resident who was subjected to a combination of loud music and stress positions during his two-and-a-half years at Guantánamo.

I've experienced adverse reactions to music that was played too loudly. I've observed that fatigue and stress further limit my resilience in a loud environment. So I believe that Guantánamo inmates experienced pain that was deliberately invoked.

The musicians' requests for information about the way in which their music was used stems from former detainees' testimony and from released government documents. According to Mother Jones and the ACLU, participating artists included REM, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Rosanne Cash, the Roots, Rise Against and Billy Bragg.

“When we found out that music was being used as part of the torture going on at Guantanamo , shackling and beating people — we were angry," The Roots said in a statement. "Just as we wouldn’t be caught dead allowing Dick Cheney to use our music for his campaigns, you can be damn sure we wouldn’t allow him to use it to torture other human beings. Congress needs to shut Guantánamo down.”

If you think musicians don't have clout to back up their rhetoric, guess again. The open mic in Clearlake had to shut down briefly in mid-2007 after the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers asked for a yearly license fee of $388. The monthly venue was able to resume in March 2008 after two KFOG D.J.s offered to pay the license fee for two years.

I thought such licensing demands against a small-town open mic were draconian and excessive -- but imagine if that clout could be wielded against the U.S. government for what were surely unauthorized broadcasts. That's a cause I'd support.

I appreciate what must surely be a sense of horror and disgust with which rock musicians are seeking to learn whether or not their music was wielded as an instrument of torture. For more information about the ACLU's investigation, visit www.aclu.org/accountability/. The gross misuse of music is detailed under "Tortured Tunes," dated Oct. 22.

Published Nov. 3, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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