The human ear is defenseless. Unable to keep sound out, it must take in all it hears. The beeswax earplugs Odysseus supplied his crew saved them from the Sirens, even as he self-torturingly enjoyed their song after being bound to the mast by his men.
News this week that police had deployed the LRAD (Long-Range Acoustic Device) against protesters resisting the Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota reminded us again of the potential of sound as weapon. “Device” is a euphemism: a gun, by this formulation, is merely a bullet-delivery-device. The manufacturer’s own descriptions of its range of LRAD products stresses the contraptions capacity for “communication.”
A year ago this sound cannon was used quell protests in Portland. On the local CBS station news on June 6, 2020 the city’s police explain that the weapon, used to combat protesters the previous night, is only dangerous when used improperly. Trust the authorities with tools of sounding warfare at your peril.
History’s most infamous musical assault exploited the defenselessness of the ear. The massively distorted music blasted at the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 by the FBI wore down the compound dwellers over the seven-week siege like a battleship pounding the shore. The final firestorm was prepared by sleep-preventing decibel levels themselves amplified by horrifying aesthetic crimes, the most heinous being Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” The G-men viciously varied their playlist, jumping from sing-along Christmas carols in saccharine 1950s-style arrangements to Tibetan chants and cavalry bugle blasts. (Historical-philosophical aside: condemned by Plato as effeminate and corrupting, the Mixolydian mode starts on the note of G. Plato’s rant against the mode takes on absurdly convincing contours when one pictures the long-time chieftain of the G-Men—i.e., Mixolydian Men—J. Edgar Hoover dancing round FBI headquarters in a ball gown, never mind that that claims of his cross-dressing have been debunked by skeptics.)
Just how seriously perpetrators of sonic violence take their music can be judged by the care with which they assemble their repertoires of destruction and despair.
Cult leader David Koresh, himself a failed pop singer, had begun the high-decibel musical exchange in Waco by first bombarding the FBI with recordings of his own happy-clappy pop. This siege-busting tactic ceased when the federal forces cut the compound’s power supply.
Waco was not the first instance of musical warfare. A few years before, the U. S. had tried to ferret out opera-lover Manuel Noriega from his Panama City redoubt with a non-stop heavy metal bombardment: Madame Butterfly and La Traviata were no match for Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. The sonic assault was finally halted under pressure from the Vatican.
In Guantanamo Bay and other prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq the British rights group Reprieve claimed that interrogation techniques involved the uses of extremely loud music by AC/DC, and Metallica as well as theme songs from children’s television shows like Barney & Friends. These horrors were detailed by Andy Worthington in Counterpunch in 2009.
Unfettered by earplugs, anti-noise headphones or other defensive technologies, the ear is helpless to protect itself. The eyes have lids, the ears don’t. In A Clockwork Orange when the violent sociopath and Beethovenian fanatic Alex is re-programmed to harmless passivity, his eyes must be propped open so he can be forced to witness acts of violence on the screen while being infused with a nausea-inducing drug. By contrast, the glorious strains of Alex’s beloved 9th symphony of Ludwig Van that accompany the images enter unimpeded into his body.
As Plato and many other writers have known, music works directly on the soul. There is nothing more uplifting nor potentially devastating.
Fifteen years ago New York University Professor Suzanne Cusick began writing about the militarizing effort to harness the power of sound: “On November 18, 1998, now-defunct Synetics Corporation [was contracted] to produce a tightly focused beam of infrasound–that is, vibration waves slower than 100 vps–meant to produce effects that range from ‘disabling or lethal.’ In 1999, Maxwell Technologies patented a HyperSonic Sound System, another ‘highly directional device … designed to control hostile crowds or disable hostage takers.”’ The same year Primex Physics International patented both the “Acoustic Blaster,” which produced “repetitive impulse waveforms” of 165dB, directable at a distance of 50 feet, for ‘antipersonnel applications,’ and the Sequential Arc Discharge Acoustic Generator, which produces ‘high intensity impulsive sound waves by purely electrical means.’”
The LRAD was developed some twenty years ago by American Technology Corporation, which then changed its name to the LRAD Corporation, rebranding again in 2019 as the more indistinct yet ominous-sounding, Genasys Corporation. Early on manufacturer praised its weapon’s capability for “projecting a ‘strips of sound’ (15 to 30 inches wide) at an average of 120 dB (maxing at 151 dB) that will be intelligible for 500 to 1,000 meters (depending on which model you buy), the LRAD is designed to hail ships, issue battlefield or crowd-control commands, or direct an “attention-getting and highly irritating deterrent tone for behavior modification.”
Wielded by the 361st PsyOps company, the LRAD was deployed to “prepare the battlefield” in the siege of Fallujah in November of 2004. The device was armed with AC/DC’s “Hells’ Bells” and “Shoot to Thrill.”
As Cusick pointed out, the great advantage of sonic weapons and torture implements is that they leave no mark on the victim. The young Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national resident in the United Kingdom, was captured in Pakistan in 2002 and subsequently transferred to various CIA Black Sites. After being held in a Kabul prison for eighteen months in complete darkness, he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2004.
In a 2009 interview soon after his release from prison and return to Britain, Mohamed described his sonic ordeal: “There were loudspeakers in the cell, pumping out a deafening volume, non-stop, 24 hours a day. They played the same CD for a month, The Eminem Show. When it was finished it went back to the beginning and started again. I couldn’t sleep. I had no idea whether it was day or night.” In contrast to the other forms of torture he suffered—as in the scalpel he claims was used to sliced his genitals—the sonic torture left no physical trace. In 2010 Mohamed received an undisclosed settlement that brought to a conclusion his several suits against the British government for concluding in his detainment and torture.
Meanwhile, the LRAD had been busy not just in foreigner theaters of operation but in the American Homeland. A few months after Mohamed’s was freed from Guantanamo, the LRAD dispersed crowds protesting the G20 summit in Pittsburg in September of 2009—the devices first documented use for such purposes in the United States. It’s dishonor roll of deployment continues to the present: from Occupy Oakland action in 2011, to NYPD measures against 2014 protestors of Eric Garner’s murder, to 2016 anti-Trump rallies in San Diego, to the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, to last year’s BLM demonstrations from Portland to Kenosha—and now at the Headwaters of the Mississippi.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)