Imagine being stuck in the corner of a dark room with headphones you can’t seem to take off. Now imagine listening to ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ for 20 days straight. You haven’t slept a wink since, your brain and bodily functions are frazzled, your train of thoughts has derailed into the abyss and you’re on the brink of complete disorientation.
Introducing the no-touch torture device called music, which has been weaponised to its full capacity—starting with detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp who were once “stripped to their underwear, shackled to chairs and blinded by strobe lights as heavy metal, rap and children’s tunes assaulted their ears.” Yes, you read that right. Even children’s tunes and nursery rhymes were used to “create fear and prolong capture shock” among prisoners—while drowning out their screams.
Based on leaked interrogations, news reports and accounts of soldiers and detainees, here are 15 songs that guards have chosen to “break” people into submission:
A classic banger, who can it possibly torment? That’s what Pakistani-Englishman Moazzam Begg, arrested by the CIA from Pakistan back in 2002, thought—until the torture stretched on and it became unbearable. “It was terrible, there was no light at all, it was so tight, so hot, sitting in there. I met several people who’d been in there… ready to tell the Americans anything they wanted, whether it was true or not,” he later detailed in his memoir.
Ironic that someone’s resolve would succumb to this inspirational song, right? Well, that’s the entire point. Navy veteran Donald Vance once suffered this track after the US Army raided an Iraqi security firm he had been investigating undercover at. When all the employees were rounded up, Vance was treated as a suspect, taken to an unofficial prison camp and tormented with the song.
Although he survived due to his military training, Vance started talking and telling jokes to himself with the aim of keeping his thoughts busy. He knew that if he let the music completely “mask his thoughts,” he’d never be the same again. With this technique, he made it out of prison as a “damaged” but not a “broken” man.
The music video is guaranteed to leave you dizzy but what makes the track so torturous? Sergeant Mark Hadsell, a member of the US Psychological Operations team, noted the following about the efficacy of the method: “If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.” In ‘Enter Sandman’’s case, the prisoners were definitely ‘sleeping with one eye open’ for days at a stretch.
According to leaked documents, this was one of the favourite songs of Guantanamo Bay interrogators. In fact, officials even invited the band to perform for troops during the ‘Freedom Fest’ on 4 July 2017. While this move was highly controversial at the time, the event was allegedly held away from the detention centre and out of the inmates’ earshot.
Ever since Binyam Mohamed, who was held in both Guantanamo Bay and a CIA prison in Morocco, was released in 2009, he has been at the forefront of several human rights campaigns by detailing an array of physical torture methods he had witnessed—all with Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’ playing in the background on a relentless loop for 20 days. It was so brutal that he would also hear captives in other cells “screaming and smashing their heads against walls.”
Hate to admit, but the Barney & Friends theme song is apparently one of the most “overused” torture songs in the CIA’s arsenal. Can’t seem to digest the fact that this is now a major TikTok banger either? Well, Bob Singleton, the man behind this children’s track, “just laughed” when he heard of its shocking utility:
“It seemed so ludicrous that something totally innocuous for children could threaten the mental state of an adult. I would rate the annoyance factor to be about equal with hearing my neighbour’s leaf blower. It can set my teeth on edge, but it won’t break me down and make me confess to crimes against humanity.” How about you listen to it for 20 days on repeat, Mister Singleton?
According to former Guantanamo prisoner Ruhal Ahmed, several inmates subjected to hours of this song could no longer comprehend the lyrics and just hear heavy banging. Some of them even lost their minds—rendering their intel useless. “I can bear being beaten up, it’s not a problem,” Ahmed said in a 2008 interview with Reprieve. “Once you accept that you’re going to go into the interrogation room and be beaten up, it’s fine. You can prepare yourself mentally. But when you’re being psychologically tortured, you can’t.”
In a more disturbing twist of events, even religion has been used as a form of torture against inmates. Aiming to exploit Muslim cultural taboos involved with enjoying music on holy days, interrogators played Arabic music for Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker of the 9/11 attacks, on the first day of Ramadan on 7 December 2002. Hearing the familiar instruments, he cried that it was a “violation of Islam law to listen to Arabic music.” He then broke down by stating that “he could do nothing about the music that was played in the [interrogation] booth.”
al-Qahtani was also subjected to Aguilera’s sexually-charged pop anthem “to make it impossible for him to be an observant Muslim man.” In this regard, MIC noted how several inmates have suffered similar humiliations which have included female military personnel giving forced lap dances and “rubbing red liquids they identified as menstrual blood on detainees.”
Where do I even begin?
Biblical connotations, do I dare say more? While interviewing former inmates, German musicologist Christian Gruny played ‘Babylon’ for a Guantanamo prisoner who reportedly burst into uncontrollable sobs almost immediately.
With 288 million views on YouTube, ‘My Love’ was one of the top songs that define the early aughts. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that CIA operatives had included it in a torture program used in a COBALT prison in Afghanistan. One such inmate, Suleiman Abdullah, said that he was once “assaulted with music” by Westlife. But this specific song was chosen by his interrogators as Abdullah was caught by the CIA two weeks after his wedding.
Here’s another song you won’t be listening to the same way ever again.
The last one on our list is ‘Baby Shark’—as a group of pre-trial detainees filed a lawsuit against the Oklahoma County Detention Center in November 2021 for using the song as part of their torture tactics. “The volume of the song was so loud that it was reverberating down the hallways,” the lawsuit noted. Back in 2019, Florida officials also streamed the song on loop to prevent homeless people from sleeping or setting up camp in parks. Still wondering how this children’s rhyme has 10 billion views on YouTube?