Death disco: music, torture and the diary of Mojamedou Ould Slahi

Reading about the Guantánamo diarist Mojamedou Ould Slahi’s experiences of being tortured by the US military, two things leap out. One is that he seems to have been targeted for sexual assault by a female interrogator/torturer. And the other is that, along with numerous other US detainees subjected to PsyOps techniques designed to disorientate and disturb, Slahi was forced to listen to loud music - in his case rap and metal.

Sexual advances from a woman and high-volume background music, possibly stuff like Nine Inch Nails or Metallica. Initially there’s almost a kind of frat-boy “yeah, sounds good” quality to this, but of course the context is one of extreme disempowerment. These things are happening entirely involuntarily and occurring in an alienating environment amid a battery of other abuse.

Slahi seems to have been put through a whole range of physical and mental torture: starvation, severe punching (leading to broken ribs amongst other things), sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, 20-hour interrogations, threats to arrest his mother, cold temperatures, making him drink salt water, prolonged standing, a charade of taking him out to sea on a speedboat supposedly to put him in a new secret prison or perhaps even to throw him into the sea, and so on.

Really think about what any of this would actually be like to go through (even the interrogation, for 20 hours) and imagine that you’ve been going through this for weeks, months and even years and ... well, first I reckon it's almost impossible to really put yourself in Slahi’s place, fearful, hungry, shaking with fear, possibly crying. But once you even start to think about it, then the exposure to sustained blasts of music and the repeated sexual assaults all take on a far more sinister quality.

In his account of Slahi’s diary, the journalist Ian Cobain described Slahi as seeming “curiously undamaged” by his experiences, still able to crack a (bitter) joke at the bogus hearings he gets dragged into at Guantánamo. And oddly enough, Slahi also overturns the conventional wisdom about “torture music”, saying - bleakly enough - “I didn’t really mind the music because it made me forget the pain”.

From what you read about Slahi you get an impression of someone who’s a “survivor”, someone getting through his years of brutality and injustice almost unscathed. I wonder though. As Cobain also notes, his diary is littered with fearful words (“frightened”, “afraid”) and could it be that when he finally achieves his freedom he’ll be subjected to flashbacks and PTSD-type anguish? Indeed can you ever really be “normal” again after a decade of dehumanisation at Guantánamo?

One of the most common triggers for buried memories is music (“oh, this takes me right back”), and while personal nostalgia for one’s youth often drives people to go back to “the old stuff”, “80s music”, the “old skool” etc, I can’t help wondering whether Slahi will end up associating the rap and metal he heard during torture with the pain it helped him forget at the time.

As someone who actually likes menacing music (the wilder shores of goth, grindcore, the violent assaults of breakcore, thrashy punk), I certainly wouldn’t want music to become part of my own mental tapestry of torture and suffering. Personally I can listen to and enjoy something like PiL’s supremely unsettling Death Disco precisely because it doesn’t conjure up terrible memories. Death Disco was John Lydon’s tortured lament for his mother who died of cancer shortly beforehand. It’s the sound of suffering, for sure, but set at an artistic distance. By contrast, the death disco of the world’s torture chambers is not something I ever want to hear. If all of sudden snatches of music begin transporting the listener back to the dungeon chamber, then ... well, the torture lingers on.

I reckon that Slahi’s diary, for all that it’s especially noteworthy because it comes from the barren terrain of Guantánamo incarceration, is also interesting purely because it is a diary, one of the great genres of writing. Some of my favourite reading has been in diary form - currently it’s André Gide’s monumental Journals and I’ve just acquired ... (wait for it) ... The Kenneth Williams Diaries (“Oh, what’s the bloody point!”).

What I’d be rather interested in reading is a diary from any of the military personnel at the US base at Diego Garcia, the British overseas territory in the Indian Ocean. Did, for instance, a British official at Diego Garcia ever hear snatches of loud torture music being played during the CIA detainee interrogations that are said to have occurred there? Or did they hear something, but … pretended that they hadn’t?

In other words - if I may put it like this - who is ever going to face the music in the British government or in MI5/MI6 over the UK’s involvement in the rendition, secret detention and torture of detainees in the disastrous “war on terror”? Silence

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