"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Lowdown 

Years ago, when I was a youngster, I devoured the Three Investigators series of mysteries for juvenile readers. My favorite was the first volume in the series, The Secret of Terror Castle, in which Jupiter Jones and his sidekicks sought out a haunted house for Alfred Hitchcock to use as a film set. The boys investigated a Hollywood castle where, inexplicably, they experienced random but severe feelings of anxiety and despair at key moments. Turns out that the bad guy was using a pipe organ to produce infrasonic frequencies which, we were told, produced profound emotional responses in the listener.

A fascinating theory, but one which I assumed even at the time was largely or entirely bunk. But perhaps I was too hasty in my assumptions.

I thought of that old book when I stumbled across this article (oddly enough, in the music section) in last week's Seattle Weekly:
A widely disseminated story by AP reporter Amy Teibel, dated Friday, June 10, revealed that Israeli soldiers tested a non-lethal acoustic weapon dubbed "the Scream" during a recent demonstration against the West Bank wall, after participants became increasingly violent. "Protesters covered their ears and grabbed their heads, overcome by dizziness and nausea, after the vehicle-mounted device began sending out bursts of audible, but not loud, sound at intervals of about 10 seconds," Teibel wrote. "An Associated Press photographer at the scene said that even after he covered his ears, he continued to hear the sound ringing in his head."

Online U.S. lefty conjecture suggests that Israel has latched onto American Technology Corporation's Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD. Goodness knows, the U.S. has. According to the company's brochure, "LRAD is known throughout the Department of Defense as 'The Sound of Force Protection.'" With a strong presence in the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and numerous other government and law-enforcement entities, the 45-pound, disc-shaped combination bullhorn, sonic disrupter, and kinky playback module (MP3, CD, laptop, voice, and video inputs; 500-yard-plus range at 120 decibels) is easily the most popular sonic apparatus with weapon capabilities ever.

It's also the most thoroughly and reliably documented. Sure, digital folk histories of acoustic combat contraptions abound, and not all of what they offer is hooey. "Infrasound"—vibrations below the range of human hearing (between 20 hertz and 20,000 hertz)—has profound effects on living organism and inanimate object alike, potentially rattling the latter to flinders and generating the aforementioned symptoms, along with confusion, depression, and even death, for the former.

But apart from seemingly unanimous agreement that 7 hertz can potentially kill, the jury is out as to exactly what happens where in the spectrum. Certainly, no firsthand accounts support one site's assertion that 12 hertz is the irresistibly bowel-loosening "poop frequency" long pursued by mean-spirited electronic musicians.

What?!? This required some additional investigation! The obvious place to start was the "widely disseminated" AP story which, somehow, had escaped my attention. I found it here:
Israel is considering using an unusual new weapon against Jewish settlers who resist this summer's Gaza Strip evacuation - a device that emits penetrating bursts of sound that leaves targets reeling with dizziness and nausea.

Security forces could employ the weapon to overcome resistance without resorting to force, their paramount aim. But experts warn that the effects of prolonged exposure are unknown.

The army employed the new device, which it dubbed "The Scream," at a recent violent demonstration by Palestinians and Jewish sympathizers against Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

Protesters covered their ears and grabbed their heads, overcome by dizziness and nausea, after the vehicle-mounted device began sending out bursts of audible, but not loud, sound at intervals of about 10 seconds. An Associated Press photographer at the scene said that even after he covered his ears, he continued to hear the sound ringing in his head.

A military official said the device emits a special frequency that targets the inner ear. Exposure for several minutes at close range could cause auditory damage, but the noise is too intolerable for people to remain in the area for that long, he said.

As an amateur bassist, my initial reaction to this story was similar to the way the dog lover in me responds to photos of dogs used against prisoners at Abu Ghraib: How could anyone use such a beautiful thing for such an ugly purpose? (Don't worry about the bass player messing with you, by the way - a four-string bass in standard EADG tuning produces a bottom tone at about 40 Hz, and the low B on a five string bass is about 30 Hz.) Still, I thought, if infrasonic devices can be used for nonlethal crowd control, or for battlefield use (destroying the enemy's will to fight without physical violence), that might be a good thing. The problem here is that very low frequencies are highly non-directional - something known to anyone who has ever walked around at an outdoor concert with poorly placed PA speakers - and it would be difficult or perhaps even impossible to use such a device without affecting its operator just as much as its intended targets.

A more likely use of such a device might be interrogation, under circumstances where it could be triggered remotely in a controlled environment. Which led me to wonder - would such a use constitute torture? Certainly, using the alleged "poop frequency" (more properly, if only slightly more maturely, known as a "brown note"; South Park fans are familiar with it from the episode entitled "Worldwide Recorder Concert"), should such a thing actually exist, would constitute intentional humiliation and so would violate the Geneva Accords. And use of the potentially lethal frequencies around 7 Hz is no different from any other form of physical violence. But what about infrasound tuned to produce nothing more than "anxiety, uneasiness, extreme sorrow, nervous feelings of revulsion or fear and chills down the spine," as has been reported in one controlled experiment? Would this be permitted under international law? Should it be?

My sense is that the American firms and intelligence agencies supposedly working in this area are on shaky ground (no pun intended), but I would be interested in considering any thoughts you may have.




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