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From Nickelback to Sesame Street: how music is used to battle crime and fight wars

From Nickelback to Sesame Street: how music is used to battle crime and fight wars

A Canadian police force on Prince Edward Island is threatening drink drivers with the music of Nickelback. Police in the town of Kensington have said:

On top of a hefty fine, a criminal charge and a year’s driving suspension we will also provide you with a bonus gift of playing the office’s copy of Nickelback in the cruiser on the way to jail.

This might seem an odd form of crime prevention, but the use of music as punishment is a tried and tested method. Other recent examples include Rockdale Council in Sydney, Australia, who in 2006 used the music of Barry Manilow to prevent young people from loitering outside shops. And in 2009, one US Judge, incensed at young people playing music too loud from their cars in certain neighbourhoods, sentenced them to his Music Immersion Programme. This involved them being both punished and educated by having such songs played to them as the Barney theme tune and, yes, more Barry Manilow.

There is of course variation in the types of music different people would consider punishment. When merchant ships reportedly were using Britney Spears’ music in the fight against Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, Steven Jones, of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, said: “I’d imagine using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention.”

We could all jokingly volunteer “naff” music for inclusion in these punishments and deterrents – but the truth is that the (mis)use of music quite often does breach International Human Rights Conventions, notably Article 5.

Acoustic bombardment

Music has long been systematically used a weapon of war. It was famously blasted out of loudspeakers in Nazi concentration camps to drown out sounds of gunfire, which might have led to panic or rebellion. Jolly music was also used as a “welcome” to greet new arrivals at the train station in Treblinka, deceiving them about the true nature of the camp. Official orchestras were a feature of many camps. Prisoners played for the benefit of officers and were treated better than ordinary camp prisoners, many feeling that they owed their survival to being in the orchestra.

Famously, when the former leader of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was taking refuge from US forces at the home of the Papal Nuncio in Panama City, the Americans blasted heavy metal at the opera-loving general. The New York Times reported that Noriega, exhausted and tormented by the deafening heavy metal music that troops were playing, surrendered on January 4 1990.

During the Iraq war, US troops bombarded the enemy with music, a tactic that was agreed at command level. The choice of music was left up to the soldiers, who constructed sound systems in military vehicles so they could play it. The soldiers overwhelmingly chose rap and heavy metal. One soldier in the film Soundtrack to War, which is about the use of music by US soldiers in Iraq, says “war itself is heavy metal”.

Psychological torture

To some extent, any repetitious noise can be used for harm, but in the cases of the Iraq war and Guantanamo Bay, the music was often selected specifically because it was culturally alien to the enemy – heavy metal and rap, for example. The themes from Sesame Street and Barney, symbolic of childhood innocence, were also used to “break” detainees.

British Guantanamo detainee, Binyam Mohamed reported the use of music on numerous occasions alongside other torture techniques:

It was pitch black, and no lights on in the rooms for most of the time … They hung me up for two days. My legs had swollen. My wrists and hands had gone numb … There was loud music, Slim Shady and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop, over and over.

Some bands are reportedly happy for their music to be used for what they perceived as patriotic purposes, but many more were vigorously opposed their music being used for torture. But the use of music has joined sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation as non-lethal “torture lite” which is used to coerce prisoners into giving up their secrets.

Music, like any noise, can be a source of pain. At high volume, people experience accelerated respiration and heartbeat, spatial disorientation, their intellectual capacity becomes diminished, and they feel nauseous and neurotic. Beyond a certain limit, it can become more than just a nuisance or a means to rid the streets of loitering kids, it can be an immaterial weapon of death.

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