Sesame Street composer: U.S. ‘perverted’ my music to torture prisoners

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, May 31, 2012 9:27 EDT
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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks with Sesame Street muppets Jesse and Rosita at a preview of the PBS special "When Families Grieve" at the Pentagon on April 13, 2010. Photo: Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, creative commons licensed.
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Christopher Cerf, creator of the children’s program The Electric Company and an award-winning composer who produced the theme song to Sesame Street, told a reporter recently that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “perverted” his music “to serve evil” by using his most famous composition to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Documents made public in 2010 revealed that ten specific torture techniques were recommended by Bush administration attorneys, although the CIA had proposed 12. Among those rejected were mock burials and prolonged diapering, but among the legal tactics, loud music, threatening prisoners with power drills or guns, physical abuse, simulated drowning and sensory deprivation were all commonly deployed.

In a documentary aired Wednesday, Al Jazeera World captures Cerf on camera as he learns for the first time that his music was used by U.S. interrogators.

“[The] idea that my music had a role in that is kind of outrageous,” he’s quoted as saying. “This is fascinating to me both because of the horror of music being perverted to serve evil purposes if you like, but I’m also interested in how that’s done. What is it about music that would make it work for that purpose?”

The film depicts a meeting between Cerf and a soldier, former Guantanamo Bay guard Chris Arendt, who spoke publicly about his experiences during a 2008 Iraq Veterans Against the War event called “Winter Soldier.”

In his speech, he called Guantanamo Bay a “concentration camp” and said that detainees were often forced to sit shackled to the floor in a freezing cold room for longer than his 12-hour shifts, listening to loud music playing on loop the whole time. He also spoke about the frequent use of pepper spray and physical abuse to break down detainees, and noted that all of the confrontations and interrogations were filmed.

Speaking to Cerf, he confirmed again that music was frequently used to torment prisoners. “It was like a dance club-style music system that they had set up just rocking int his room with all kinds of American rock music. 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.”

President Barack Obama formally disavowed the Bush administration’s torture program on his second day in office. Despite this change, he’s since been criticized for using drone strikes to simply eradicate terrorist suspects, militants and, on some occasions, nearby civilians, as opposed to the Bush administration’s proclivity for kidnapping and torture.

This video is from Al Jazeera World, published May 30, 2012.


Photo: Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, creative commons licensed.

Updated for clarity.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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