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Using Sound as a Weapon

The world is full of beautiful sounds – from your favorite music to birds singing and children laughing. But sounds can also be too loud, annoying, and unpleasant. And while prolonged exposure to loud noises can damage your ears, some people take this a step further and use sound to purposely inflict pain on others.

Diplomats report hearing loss

One of the most recent examples of alleged sonic warfare involves at least two dozen U.S. diplomats working at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. They reported mysterious illnesses, with symptoms including hearing loss, nausea, headaches, and blood disorders.

How were these alleged acoustic attack carried out? Many think infrasound (below audible levels) or ultrasound (above audible range) sonic devices were aimed at the diplomats’ residences. Other theories include weaponized chemicals, viral infections, and electromagnetic pulses. Still, some believe that the diplomats’ hearing problems are simply due to their quarters having been close to Cuban wind farms, and not a deliberate attack. Whatever the case may be, a definitive cause of their hearing loss remains unknown.

Turning up the volume

The U.S. Army used sound as a weapon in its attempts to capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989 for drug-related crimes. With Noriega holed up in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, the U.S. used a number of psychological tactics to force him out and surrender. This included blasting rock music at the building, including some not-so-subtle song choices like Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and even “Panama” by Van Halen. Although the musical onslaught was stopped at the request of the ambassador serving as an intermediary, Noriega eventually surrendered — and how much the U.S. blasting rock and heavy metal around the clock influenced his decision will likely never be known.

Sonic crowd control

Some police forces use sonic weapons to break up crowds of protesters. For instance, the LRAD sound cannon – a long-range acoustic device – has been used to drive away protesters during the G20 summit in Pittsburgh 2009, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and in North Dakota in 2016. Non-lethal, the devices emit loud sounds to irritate and cause headaches so people disperse. However, they can cause hearing loss to those in close proximity, making their use highly controversial.

Dealing with pesky teens

The power of sound is also useful in diffusing a more common scenario – loitering teenagers. With the concern that teenagers hanging around a store will deter customers, a device known as The Mosquito helps to drive them away. The Mosquito projects a high-pitched sound typically audible only to those under the age of 20. While it can prevent teens from loitering, it can also affect babies and young children who can’t leave on their own. For this reason and others, the legality and ethics of using this device is a hot topic of debate.

The power of sound

Obviously, the use of sound as a weapon remains controversial. Little is understood about the long-term impact of sonic weapons and the effects on those who aren’t even targeted. While we’re still not sure if the incident in Cuba was indeed a sonic attack, the other examples demonstrate the true power of sound, whether to topple dictators or to disperse protesters and rowdy teenagers. In any case, the power of sound to inflict serious damage and cause hearing loss is clear and should never be taken lightly.