A History of Using Music as a Weapon

Music can inspire and invigorate. It can also be used to inflict harm and even kill. The New Yorker takes a look at the history of music when it comes to violence.

December, 1989, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was expelled from power by American forces. To escape capture, he took refuge in the Papal Nunciatura in Panama City. When an American general arrived to confer with the papal nuncio, the U.S. Army blared music from loudspeakers to prevent journalists from eavesdropping. Members of a psychological-operations unit then decided that non-stop music might aggravate Noriega into surrendering. They made requests for songs on the local armed-forces radio station, and directed the din at Noriega’s window. The dictator was thought to prefer opera, and so hard rock dominated the playlist. The songs conveyed threatening, sometimes mocking messages: Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

Although the media delighted in the spectacle, President George H. W. Bush and General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a dim view of it. Bush called the campaign “irritating and petty,” and Powell had it stopped. Noriega, who had received psy­ops training at Fort Bragg in the nineteen-sixties, is said to have slept soundly through the clamor. Nonetheless, military and law-enforcement officials became convinced that they had stumbled on a valuable tactic. “Since the Noriega incident, you’ve been seeing an increased use of loudspeakers,” a psyops spokesman declared. During the siege of the Branch Davidian compound, in Waco, Texas, in 1993, the F.B.I. blasted music and noise day and night. When Palestinian militants occupied the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, in 2002, Israeli forces reportedly tried to eject them with heavy metal. And during the occupation of Iraq the C.I.A. added music to the torture regime known as “enhanced interrogation.” At Guantánamo, detainees were stripped to their underwear, shackled to chairs, and blinded by strobe lights as heavy metal, rap, and children’s tunes assaulted their ears. Music has accompanied acts of war since trumpets sounded at the walls of Jericho, but in recent decades it has been weaponized as never before—outfitted for the unreal landscape of modern battle.

The intersection of music and violence has inspired a spate of academic studies.

Read the whole thing here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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