Torture by music

What do the tunes of Eminem, Aerosmith, Tupac Shakur and Meat Loaf have in common?

Answer: they h

Vice-President Dick Cheney said just recently that the US should use water-boarding (holding a prisoner's head under water to simulate drowning) to elicit information from terror suspects.

"Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" asked his conservative radio interviewer on 24 October.

"It's a no-brainer for me," said Cheney.

Embarrassingly, the Bush administration had just assured Congress that water-boarding was illegal and would never be used. A new US army field manual, published in September, banned it as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

This is not the only realm in which the White House needs a consistent message. Another "enhanced interrogation technique" that it finds attractive is "torture by music". Many people detained in the war on terror describe having music blasted at them 24 hours a day at great volume. They have even identified the songs. If you ask what the tunes of Aerosmith, Eminem, Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac Shakur and Meat Loaf have in common with the theme tunes of the American children's television show Barney, there is only one answer: all have been used to torture people.

The torturers' taste in tunes is questionable. Springsteen's "Born in the USA", for example, has been a favourite in the secret prisons, repeating the mistake made by the Reagan campaign in 1984, when the Republicans thought the chorus - "Born in the USA!" - would make a loyal campaign chant. Yet the message of the song is harshly critical of American policy, condemning the war in Vietnam and describing a veteran's efforts to find work.

Other lyrics used by today's torturers seem equally inappropriate. In "White America", Eminem raps that he plans to "piss on the lawns of the White House" and "spit liquor in the faces of this democracy of hypocrisy". It is difficult to see how President Bush could approve of this, let alone the verse where Eminem expresses his intention to have sex with the vice-president's wife.

Playing "I Love You", a theme tune for the purple television dinosaur Barney, to terrorists is equally perplexing, particularly given the closing stanza: "I love you,/You love me./We're a happy family./ With a great big hug/And a kiss from me to you,/Won't you say you love me, too?" Thus far, Bush has eschewed the cuddly approach in the war on terror.

As the architect of enhanced interrogation techniques, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, needs to take a firmer grip. I do not pretend to be an expert in musical abuse, but surely he should encourage the American Gulag's disc jockeys to select more country and western numbers? Take Toby Keith, for example, and his song about "a middle-aged, Middle Eastern camel-herdin' man . . . [in a] two-bedroom cave here in north Afghanistan". The administration would be much better off blasting out how we should "flip a couple fingers to the Taliban!". This kind of torture would be on-message and much more effective: I, for one, would confess to anything after enduring the first verse.

Torture victims cannot sue, but artists can. And some of these sensitive musicians may be offended that their music is being used to abuse. And because the torturers did not get permission to spin particular discs, they are liable for royalties.

This means that one day Rumsfeld will end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. I'd love to ask the questions at his deposition: how many times was each song played, and why was a particular tune selected in the first place? But perhaps we can pre-empt litigation. Desert Island Discs is an obvious alternative; Kirsty Young should invite Rumsfeld on the programme. Presumably, his chosen book would not be the Geneva Conventions, though it might be his "luxury item". Then he could tell us all which eight songs he would choose to hear, over and over - at high volume.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents several prisoners in Guantanamo, many of whom have been tortured by music. He writes this column monthly. Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640. www.reprieve.org.uk