Opinion

Why Skinny Puppy asked Gitmo to pay up

A guard heard his favorite band playing in the torture room — so he enlisted them to hold the US accountable

February 12, 2014 11:55AM ET
Left: Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy performing live onstage. Right: A U.S. military guard tower stands on the perimeter of a detainee camp at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Left: Marc Broussely/Redferns/Getty Images; Right: John Moore/Getty Images

As 2008 was coming to an end, I looked back at the last year of my life. It had not improved much from when I had been working in Camp Delta, a detention facility owned and operated by the United States located in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Guantanamo, or GTMO, as it is known to the soldiers who have worked there, affected me in a way I would never have predicted when I was told that my unit was deploying there. What I expected was exactly what the media and the Army had told me to expect: dealing, on a daily basis, with "the worst of the worst," "Al Qaeda operatives," "the Taliban," "dirt farmers and sand niggers" and many other colorful terms of endearment for the captives held there. 

As it turns out, those were not the qualities and attributes I observed in the detainees of GTMO. Rather, I observed and felt compassion, sympathy, remorse, kinship and likeness to the men, as they truly were no different from me. Odd as it may sound, working at GTMO was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, but it was also one of the most difficult periods I’ve ever lived through. I met some amazing and inspiring men but was ordered to treat them like dogs. I think back on my experience with regret and shame. I am astonished that the detention center is still open, or that it was ever functioning.

When I began looking back at 2008, it had been more than four full years since I had left GTMO, and I was more unhappy than I had been while I was there, torturing and abusing presumably innocent men in the name of freedom and security. My guilt and remorse for my actions had grown to such a degree that I no longer wanted to live, and no longer wanted to remember their screams and cries. Willing to do anything to get GTMO out of myself, I reached out to Cage Prisoners, an organization in the United Kingdom that provides information about the Guantanamo detainees: why they were there, where they came from and other biographical details revealing that these men were human, too. The group was more than willing to interview me and ask me every question that occurred to them about my experience in GTMO. After that interview my life took a new direction, one with a more dignified purpose: I set out to reach as many Americans as I could to inform them of the grave injustice that I saw, participated in and was aware of in GTMO. 

A personal matter

After nearly three years of lectures, and travel to various countries outside of the United States and many universities and mosques within the United States, I felt I was not yet achieving my goal of telling the public about the torture that was taking place behind bars at GTMO. Sure, I was speaking to many people ­­— but who were they, and what were they doing with the information I was presenting to them? Most of my audience and those who listened were Muslims, and sadly, few were taking action and putting to use the information delivered. Frustrated with my failure in my endeavor, I thought about the matter for a long while, and decided it would be appropriate for me to recruit the efforts and arsenal of a lifelong musical act I had felt a great affinity for: Skinny Puppy. 

Skinny Puppy is an industrial music group based in Vancouver, British Columbia. They’ve been recording and performing as long as I’ve been alive, and their music had woven itself into the soundtrack of my life. Unbeknownst to them, I had heard their music while I was in GTMO; the songs, which I’m pretty sure came from a bootleg called “Heaven's Trash,” were used as the musical score for a torture session conducted by intelligence agents, one of whom was a hulking fellow that some of us had nicknamed Ogre.

Skinny Puppy’s songs are characterized by relentless drumbeats, synth samples and lyrics that call out corporate wrongdoing. I would never have imagined that their music would be used for torture.

I had always found refuge and joy in Skinny Puppy’s music, even though it makes for quite difficult listening. There is really no easy way to describe the band to someone who is not a fan, or at least familiar with the genre of industrial music, but their songs are characterized by relentless drumbeats, panicked, convulsive riffs, synth samples and lyrics that call out corporate wrongdoing. The songs I heard at GTMO were heavily distorted, almost to the point of inaudibility. Even so, I would never have imagined that Skinny Puppy’s music would, or could, be used for torture. I told Ogre the torturer that I knew Skinny Puppy, and I asked him why he’d chosen them. He was enthused that someone knew of the band, but he made a point of telling me how effective their music was for torture. He was happy to use something that I sought refuge in as a form of terror for these men. 

I took this affront quite personally — it was, after all, a personal matter. This was my favorite band, my equivalent of the Grateful Dead or Willie Nelson. What’s more, it is a band that had been known for decades for the stances they were willing to take: as whistle-blowers against the corrupt acts perpetrated by the U.S. government, as well as against totally avoidable natural disasters brought to us by the nice people at Exxon, and even the illegal and immoral use of chemical weapons by the regime of Saddam Hussein on the Iranian people. Skinny Puppy would be the perfect band for me to reach out to, as they would surely take reports of torture as a serious act of inhumanity, and not sit by idly. I just had to find a way to let them know.

No. 1 fan

With some research and diligent phone calls and emails, I was able to reach Skinny Puppy’s manager, who relayed my message to the band. After some initial conversations, it was decided that we would meet face to face, in December 2011. Nivek Ogre, the frontman of Skinny Puppy, was going to be touring with his side project, Ohgr, near where I live, so I made plans to meet up with him before their show for an interview and an exchange of ideas and information. (The irony of Nivek Ogre and Ohgr sharing a name with Ogre the GTMO torturer was not lost on me.) I like to think I was as nervous for the event as Nivek Ogre appeared to be when we met, since he was the singer for my favorite band ever. I wondered how receptive he would be to the information I had to share with him; if he cared that Skinny Puppy’s music was being used to scare and mentally distress the men there; or, God forbid, if he would be proud of what I was telling him.

Appreciating that the time we had together was limited and valuable, I jumped in head first and asked Ogre if he was familiar with GTMO. From that point on, we discussed everything. Rendition was naturally our first talking point; he was well aware of how people got to GTMO, and what happened when they arrived. We then talked about the forms of agency surveillance and interrogation that were happening there. It was refreshing to me that he had some understanding of GTMO, as most Americans could not find it on a map, let alone tell me who was there if I should ask them, and those who had an answer would usually reply "the place with all the terrorists" in an inquisitive tone of uncertainty. Ogre was well enough informed that I decided not to waste any more time, and informed him that I had heard the music of Skinny Puppy used in torture and interrogation sessions. Initially, he was taken aback by the idea, but as we continued to talk and I explained in great detail the things I had seen, he appeared to not only accept the fact but become motivated by it. When he thanked me for informing him of what I had seen, I know I had achieved my goal of recruiting the band to help me reach people.

I spent 2012 engaging in discussions with the public, self-publishing a memoir of my experience and speaking to the media about GTMO. All that while, I was wondering when Skinny Puppy would finally publicize the information I had shared with them. Come May 2013, they did just that, releasing their album “Weapon.” Their new work not only addressed GTMO but also questioned the ongoing government surveillance and the destruction of civil liberties in the United States. One of the most prevalent themes on the album is the constant surveillance techniques being employed in GTMO and throughout America on a daily basis. The album was only a precursor to the invoice they planned to send to the Department of Defense for using their music for such a heinous purpose without explicit permission from them to do so. 

I felt a real sense of accomplishment after Skinny Puppy embarked on their 2014 tour and sent off the invoice for $666,000 to the Defense Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency. I had set out alone in 2009 to reach the American people, and now, in 2014, I am part of an ongoing effort of people who are trying to make a difference in the world we live in. On top of that, I got to meet and work with my favorite band, and spread the word about the deep injustices that are occurring in our own backyard. This is proof that one person can make a difference — and you can, too.

Terry C. Holdbrooks is a former Guantanamo Bay guard and a speaker for the Muslim Legal Fund of America, a nonprofit charity established to help pay for attorneys for Muslims in need. He is the author of "Traitor," a memoir about his time at Guantanamo. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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