Sweeping The Clouds Away: ‘Sesame Street’ Composer Learns Of His Music’s Role At Gitmo

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    ']);">Sesame Street is broadcast in more than 140 countries around the world. It was recently stated that the Sesame Street theme song was used during torture sessions at Guantanamo Bay. (Photo by charmcitygavin on Flickr)

    Sesame Street is broadcast in more than 140 countries around the world. It was recently stated that the Sesame Street theme song was used during torture sessions at Guantanamo Bay. (Photo by charmcitygavin on Flickr)


    (MintPress) – A new Al Jazeera documentary exploring the role of music in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay has struck a chord for composer Christopher Cerf. Over the span of 40 years, Cerf has written the music for Public Broadcasting Station’s (PBS) “Sesame Street” – the historic children’s show that relies on upbeat and lighthearted tunes that have become staples in American pop culture. The documentary sheds light on a form of torture that may have been overlooked during investigations of waterboarding and solitary confinement.

    It was originally revealed in 2003 that American pop music was used against Iraqi prisoners of war as a tactic to encourage the prisoners to cooperate, including compositions from “Sesame Street.” According to BBC, the United States’ Psychological Operations Company (PsyOps) has said objective with the music was to break the resistance of prisoners by continuously playing loud music that was culturally offensive to provoke sleep deprivation.

    “These people haven’t heard heavy metal,” said PsyOps Sergeant Mark Hadsell. “They can’t take it. 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.”

    The PsyOps group said their tactic did not qualify as torture because there were no documented lasting effects from what the group described as “non-lethal” and “non-harmful” techniques. But human rights advocates and organizations disagreed, saying that the practices used can constitute as torture for some of the individuals involved.

    “Prisoners were forced to put on headphones. They were attached to chairs, headphones were attached to their heads, and they were left alone just with the music for very long periods of time,” said Thomas Keenan, Human Rights Project director at Bard College, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Sometimes hours, even days on end, listening to repeated loud music.”

    Speaking with Amnesty International in 2003, one Iraqi detainee said he was kept awake for four days while excessively loud music was played on a loop into his headphones. The human rights organization said instances like that constitute as torture.

    “This is an issue that seriously concerns us. If there is a prolonged period of sleep deprivation, it could well be considered torture,” said a spokeswoman with Amnesty International. “It is a very difficult line to draw between what constitutes discomfort and what constitutes torture – that line will vary for individuals and it would depend on each particular case,” she added.

    For Cerf, the revelation of not only seeing music’s role in the interrogation process, but seeing that it was music he had composed, had him visibly shaken in the documentary. The film shows Cerf meeting with a former Guantanamo Bay guard Chris Arendt, who has described the detention facility as a “concentration camp” in the past.

    Arendt described how music was manipulated to Cerf, saying that they would take different genres of music and overlap them, projecting the music into the detainees’ cells.

    “It was like a dance club-style music system that they had set up just rocking into his room with all kinds of American rock music,” Arendt told Cerf in the film. “You’d leave someone in there for hours in a stress position … Sometimes it was two songs playing against each other, completely off-tempo like, blaring this rock music with say, a Johnny Cash song against each other.”

    Cerf said he felt a sense of guilt because his songs contributed to the interrogation strategies, despite Cerf having no prior knowledge of the practices.

    “My first reaction was this just can’t possibly be true,” Cerf said in the documentary. “…Of course I didn’t really like the idea that I was helping break down prisoners, but it was much worse when I heard later that they were actually using the music in Guantanamo to actually do deep, long-term interrogations and obviously to inflict enough pain on prisoners so they would talk.”

    In the past, the U.S. has authorized other enhanced interrogation tactics such as hypothermia, stress positions, waterboarding and physical strikes. During instances of hypothermia interrogation, prisoners were kept in jail cells cooled to 50 degrees while regularly throwing buckets of cold water on them. Another common practice saw prisoners forced to stand handcuffed and with their feet shackled to the floor for more than 40 hours, causing muscle failure in their legs.


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