Saturday, April 8, 2017

On Civilized People Laughing at Torture

I am at the moment writing a chapter on how the Zagreb School depicted war and violence. There's no need to go into great detail about the chapter here, but I will note that my study of one film, Piccolo (Dušan Vukotić, 1959), has taken me to re-read an essay Alex Ross wrote for The New Yorker last summer about the relationship between music and violence. I put one of the books he mentions on order at the library. This might be good for a paragraph or two. Anyway, here's a passage that hit me pretty hard.

In America, musical torture received authorization in a September, 2003, memo by General Ricardo Sanchez. 'Yelling, Loud Music, and Light Control' could be used 'to create fear, disorient detainee and prolong capture shock,' provided that volume was 'controlled to prevent injury.' Such practices had already been publicly exposed in a short article in Newsweek that May. The item noted that interrogations often featured the cloying theme of 'Barney & Friends,' in which a purple dinosaur sings, 'I love you / You love me / We’re a happy family.' The article’s author, Adam Piore, later recalled that his editors couched the item in joking terms, adding a sardonic kicker: 'In search of comment from Barney’s people, Hit Entertainment, Newsweek endured five minutes of Barney while on hold. Yes, it broke us, too.' Repeating a pattern from the Noriega and Waco incidents, the media made a game of proposing ideal torture songs. 

The hilarity subsided when the public learned more of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Mosul, and Guantánamo. Here are some entries from the interrogation log of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 'twentieth hijacker,' who was refused admittance to the United States in August, 2001:

1315: Corpsman checked vitals—O.K. Christina Aguilera music played. Interrogators ridiculed detainee by developing creative stories to fill in gaps in detainee’s cover story.

0400: Detainee was told to stand and loud music was played to keep detainee awake. Was told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth. 

1115: Interrogation team entered the booth. Loud music was played that included songs in Arabic. Detainee complained that it was a violation of Islam to listen to Arabic music.

0345: Detainee offered food and water—refused. Detainee asked for music to be turned off. Detainee was asked if he can find the verse in the Koran that prohibits music.

1800: A variety of musical selections was played to agitate the detainee.

Aguilera seems to have been chosen because female singers were thought to offend Islamist detainees. Interrogation playlists also leaned on heavy-metal and rap numbers, which, as in the Noriega case, delivered messages of intimidation and destruction. Songs in regular rotation included Eminem’s 'Kim' ('Sit down, bitch / If you move again I’ll beat the shit out of you') and Drowning Pool’s 'Bodies' ('Let the bodies hit the floor').

Pay attention to how Ross tells this story.

First, there's the civilized people, people who will probably never be anywhere near a torture room, learning something that sounds just darn hilarious to them. Who doesn't hate the obnoxious jingles from kids' shows you have to endure? Of course, it's torture! And then, when the civilized people actually read the details of the torture, their eyes...no, their ears open up and they imagine a world they never knew existed, a world in which all the music, the ambience of their civilized world is used to hurt people. It shouldn't be that shocking to them, really. They had already heard Wendy Carlos reimagine Beethoven for the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and "Layla" play out in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990). What about a world in which the music wasn't used to aestheticize the violence? What about a world in which music was the violence? And did they not get that when Eminem was walking a line in "Kim," that we call it a "line" because it borders something terrible and wrong?

I don't want to be 95-year-old man clucking at Internet snark. Internet snark is with us and will always be with us. But I might request that we put the snark aside when it comes to talking about actual violence against actual people. Also, when someone starts screaming at you for playing music that they don't like, remember that you may actually be physically hurting them, you may be assaulting them in ways that our law doesn't understand but maybe should.

(I should say that at the ripe age of 36, I've become the guy who tells people they're being obnoxious assholes when they're being obnoxious assholes. This usually involves yelling at people for playing the wrong music at the wrong time and the wrong place.)

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