By Joseph Young
Nearly all states torture. Kingdoms, personalist and military dictatorships, and even democracies use this tool to coerce, punish or elicit information from dissidents. What is the worst kind of torture? Much has been made of waterboarding, but the pear of anguish is one hideous device from antiquity. Strappado is a form of torture where a person’s arms are tied behind their back and pulled above their head. It also has a long history and has many variants. US security forces allegedly used this technique at Bagram air force base. What’s worse than either of these?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
A new report details how the CIA put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on an endless blaring loop for the detainee, Abu Zubaydah. Supposedly, Metallica was also used against detainees in Iraq. During the FBI’s ill-fated assault on the Branch Davidian complex in 1993, the Bureau played Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking.” In 1996, Peruvian security forces used patriotic music to both annoy the rebels that had taken hostages and to conceal their digging during the siege of the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Noriega, the ex-Panamanian dictator, received his own playlist in the late 1980s, which included gems like “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Of course, this is all mildly serious. Music, sensory deprivation, water-boarding, and the like are often termed torture lite, but as Darius Rejali and others have demonstrated, the long term effects can be as or more pernicious than torture heavy on the individual.
Loran Nordgren and colleagues have done a series of experiments to examine how people like us determine when an action is torture. What they find is that people’s perspective on torture is characterized by an empathy gap. In short, if we haven’t experienced the device or technique, loud noise, extreme temperature, or the like, we discount the pain caused by such methods. When we are exposed, even when the exposure is relatively mild, we then tend to view similar techniques as more painful and generally support their use less. This empathy gap, can explain at least one case in the US Senate. One of the most vociferous opponents of US enhanced interrogation is John McCain, who experienced similar (and worse) techniques during his time as a prisoner in Vietnam. So, is music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers torture? Go ahead and try it. Grab a copy of their greatest hits, lock yourself in a small dark room, press repeat and turn it up.
 See Moore and Conrad (2010) for why states stop torturing. Rejali (2009) offers the most comprehensive treatment of how democracies torture.  And against my parents in the late 1980s.  Thanks to Mike Allison for this suggestion.  I won’t make a more cowbell joke, I won’t make a more cowbell joke.  You’ve been Rickrolled.