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Al-Jazeera Explores Sesame Street Songs As Instruments Of Torture

An Arabic news agency follows a songwriter as he uncovers how his music was used as a weapon of war.
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Sesame Street's Big Bird by Frazer Harrison / Guantanamo Bay by John Moore Getty Images

Sesame Street’s Big Bird by Frazer Harrison / Guantanamo Bay by John Moore Getty Images

Songs of War, a recent documentary produced for Arabic news agency Al Jazeera, explores claims that music from Sesame Street as well as heavy metal and rap songs were used in the torture of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

After being alerted that some of his educational children’s music was used as a weapon of war, GRAMMY award-winning songwriter Christopher Cerf set out on a mission to learn more about what he believed to be an “inhumane” use of his work. Al Jazeera’s cameras followed as Cerf personally interviewed former soldiers and detainees.

According to the report, prisoners, shackled and held in private cells, were subjected to near-deafening music from Metallica, AC/DC, Marilyn Manson, Drowning Pool, Eminem, Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against The Machine in addition to popular children’s classics from Sesame Street and Barney the purple dinosaur.

Loud music played repetitively over many hours or even days would induce sleep deprivation, resulting in weakness, disorientation and feelings of powerlessness. The technique, put to use by American soldiers in 2003, was reported to have been first used on American soldiers during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Tortures employed by the U.S. psychological operations units included stripping detainees of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures.

The first example of music being used by the U.S. for interrogations appears to have arrived in Spring 2002, post-9/11, reports Spin.

According to The New York Times, “while in custody at a secret CIA facility in Thailand, suspected Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was subjected to “deafening blasts of music by groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

When questioned for Cerf’s Songs of War doc, Mike Ritz, former U.S. interrogator explained that soldiers’ goal is to make prisoners depend on their captors. “What gets you to talk to me isn’t the stress I put on you. It’s the release of the stress.”

Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee now living in London, described the soldiers’ methodology. “The point is to put someone in a vegetative state where they are simply ready to say anything, comply with anything, only so that the music can be turned down.”

In 2006, Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello explained to Spin, “The fact that our music has been co-opted in this barbaric way is really disgusting. If you’re at all familiar with ideological teachings of the band and its support for human rights, that’s really hard to stand.”

– Jay Tilles, Radio.com

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