Can a coalition of popular music artists succeed where governments and pressure groups have failed?
Guantanamo Bay detention centre
"It's anti-American, period," said the rock band REM in a statement. "We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends' music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific." Last week, REM joined a coalition of rock musicians, including bands Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and Rise Against, in the launch of the National Coalition to Close Guantanamo. The rock bands agreed to support President Obama's attempt to close the Cuban detainee facility after they discovered American music was being used as a torture device. Tracks by AC/DC, Britney Spears, the Bee Gees, Marilyn Manson, as well as The Meow Mix cat food jingle, the Barney theme song and an assortment of Sesame Street tunes have been pumped into detainee cells to "break" difficult prisoners.
The music is used "to humiliate, terrify, punish, disorient and deprive detainees of sleep, in violation of international law", said Jayne Huckerby at the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice in New York. A November 2008 US senate report detailed how one prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, was exposed to "variable lighting patterns" and repeated plays of Let the Bodies Hit The Floor by the hard rock band Drowning Pool over a 10 day period because he believed music was forbidden.
A CIA representative has denied the music was being used for torture but was played to block prisoners communicating with one another, arguing that the decibel level of the music was well below that of a rock concert. Huckerby disputes that the music was used as a "benign security tool". As one of his election pledges, President Obama intended to shut down the facility at the end of January 2010, but logistical problems and Republican resistance - from former the vice-president Dick Cheney, among others - is making that look unlikely. So can rock stars help force the closure of Guantanamo Bay? Matt Mason, the senior editor of Q magazine, certainly thinks so.
"Obviously it helps if musicians highlight any human rights abuses at the camp," he said. "And many of the musicians involved supported Obama's bid to get elected, so it increases the pressure on him to deliver on one of the first promises he made as President to shut the camp." While bands such as Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Roseanne Cash, Billy Bragg and Bonnie Raitt are all lending their support, others are not. Drowning Pool are not the only act who have raised no objection to their music being used for torture. In a story which featured in The Guardian in June 2008, Metallica's James Hetfield responded to stories that the band's Enter Sandman had been played at Guantanamo by saying: "If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure. We've been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music for ever. Why should the Iraqis be any different?"
As well as enlisting bands for their PR value, activists have suggested other rock 'n' roll-related tactics to get the camp shut down. The Canadian copyright lawyer Howard Knopf has raised the possibility that bands may be able to sue the US Army for breach of copyright and insist that they stump up royalty payments for the music they have used. "If an artist had a genuine claim, it wouldn't be an easy task to take on the US military, but it would certainly be embarrassing for them," Mason said. " And it's another way of generating publicity for the campaign."
Meanwhile, the National Security Archive, an independent, non-governmental research institute in Washington, is filing a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the Guantanamo campaign, seeking classified records that will provide more evidence concerning the use of loud music at the jail. While some supporters such as the US pressure group Keep America Safe have claimed the prison is vital for national security, Thomas Blanton, executive director of the archive, thinks otherwise. "At Guantanamo, the US government turned a jukebox into an instrument of torture," he said.