The Central Intelligence Agency tortured captives by playing everything from Marilyn Manson to songs from Sesame Street.

Jackie Zettles / USO

Three months after the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras and the forcible exile of Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president sneaked back into the country and took up residence at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

The Honduran military deployed around the perimeter of the compound and busied itself preventing the entrance of potential dual-use items such as ballpoint pens, peanuts, shoelaces, tamales, and the Bible. Nighttime activities included shining lights into the embassy and blasting rock music, army songs, and recordings of pig grunts.

When I asked Honduran General Romeo Vásquez — ringleader of the coup and a former pupil at the notorious School of the Americas — about the midnight noise-fests, he laughed and claimed that the only musical performances ever to take place in the vicinity of the embassy were guitar serenades in honor of soldiers’ birthdays.

In light of the Honduran army’s role as junior partner to a US military that has long viewed the country as its own personal launch pad, the mimicry of American tactics is not surprising. Even less so, perhaps, since they had already been showcased nearby.

Twenty-five years ago in Panama, the invading US military played Van Halen and other selections at top volume in an attempt to drive Panamanian leader (and former CIA asset) Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy where he had taken refuge. It had to do with more than the songs, of course, but Noriega was out in ten days.

Although the incorporation of music into the imperial arsenal predated the war on terror, the musical torture of detainees from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo has brought the arrangement to a new, more sinister level.

A 2010 Der Spiegel article offers a glimpse at business-as-usual in the United States-run dungeons of the post-9/11 era — with prisoners being tied up or placed in wooden boxes and blasted with the likes of Dr. Dre and the Bee Gees for hours or days at a time.

The torture playlist included a host of other artists and melodies as well, ranging from Marilyn Manson to Britney Spears to Metallica to “We Are the Champions” to compositions from Sesame Street.

Der Spiegel quotes former Guantánamo inmate Ruhal Ahmed on the general incredulousness among the public when confronted with the idea of music as torture. Considering the tunes involved, it’s not clear why the concept is so difficult to grasp.

According to Ahmed, this sort of psychological punishment is in fact worse than physical torture:

[W]hen I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You’re pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side. And once you cross that line, there’s no going back.

The same sentiment was echoed by Binyam Mohamed, who spent over six years in American custody. Andy Worthington — author of The Guantánamo Filesquotes Mohamed’s framing of the relative perks of physical suffering: “Imagine you are given a choice. Lose your sight or lose your mind.”

Mohamed, it bears mentioning, is no stranger to other forms of torture. While detained in Morocco, Worthington notes, “the CIA’s proxy torturers regularly cut his penis with a razorblade.”

The logic is pretty straightforward: if your mind is what you rely on to get you through this whole nasty experience, the realization that you’re on the verge of losing it — that your mind itself is the target — unleashes even more debilitating existential anxiety. Physical pain, while often excruciating, is at least measurable in terms of excruciation and thus more readily dealt with than the prospect of impending lunacy.

Of course, you can’t totally separate mental and bodily torture. There are undoubted mental repercussions from things like rectal hydration and having your penis sliced, just as there’s a physical element to being deafened by Marilyn Manson.

As for the purpose of all the pain, the Senate Intelligence Committee report recently confirmed that torture is a decidedly ineffective means of gathering intelligence. Case in point: Ahmed falsely confessed, to his musical torturers, to having met Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and knowing of their plans. The reason for the lie? “I just said it to make them stop.”

Now that the CIA has vast quantities of non-intelligence on its hands, what next? If the organization was capable of self-reflection, there would be a lot of places where it could start. On the musical coercion front, it could ponder a 2008 clip from The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross, who recounts his interaction with New York University musicologist Suzanne Cusick, a close follower of the phenomenon:

When I asked Cusick whether she considered these tactics [of torturous music-assisted interrogation] a new development in the evolution of music as a weapon of war, she answered that there are, in fact, some disturbing historical precedents, not least the forced musical rituals at Nazi concentration camps.

One wonders what the next era of music as an instrument of torture might bring. There’s already an established US tradition of adapting war on terror techniques and equipment for use against the domestic population, and it seems that protests over police killing black people might be a good place to implement some more.

Look out for the musical drones.