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Sonic Weapons?

When reading Xeni Jardin's new post, Xeni on NPR, CNN: Sonic Weapons in Iraq -- and now, US cities, I had this terrible feeling of de ja vu. Hadn't I just read something very like that, say yesterday, but it was fiction?

In the July/August issue of Analog, Gregory Benford had a story called "The Pain Gun" about a future Middleeast conflict after a nucler war or two in which nonlethal weapons were used in preference to other types so as not to inflame the political situation back in the direction of nuclear war. The story concerns the use of a weapon that causes extreme pain but does no physical damage. I read the story yesterday.

Back in August, Defense Tech had a write-up on "sonic blasters" (aka "Long Range Acoustic Devices"), which apparently the NYPD had ready during the Republican convention and a new "improved" model was being tested by the LAPD.

This device far exceeds anything I'm aware of. Others are childrens' toys compared with this thing. The developer tells us that there are other configurations they believe will allow it to take even more energy. They estimated we were using 15,000 watts, but with a different type of magnet they believe we they can easily exceed 100,000 watts without overheating.

Further, by rearranging the orientation of the magnetic speakers, they can increase or decrease the width of the lobe, as well as decrease the size, weight and power. The device we tested is "full range;" that is, it provided clear sound from about 50 Hz to about 20,000 Hz. But if we were going to use it just for human voice or a siren, or some other specific frequency range, they can also "tune it" to provide maximum effectiveness for a specific frequency range and reduce the size and power, while increasing the range.

Back in March of last year, the Associated Press reported the use of the devices as weapons in Iraq. Earlier in September, Xeni Jardin documented the deployment of sonic blasters to New Orleans. OK, so there's no electricity and you want to get the word out to those hard-of-hearing old folks stuck in the flooded zone.  Is that what the sonic blasters were brought in for? This is from Xeni's article:

American Technology is donating four devices -- three MRADs (medium-range acoustic devices) and one LRAD (long-range acoustic device). The four devices will be shipped out Friday to a Marine military police unit that is deploying to the Gulf States area for disaster-relief efforts.

"We are donating the use of one of our most powerful prototypes, LTPMS-2, for use in Mississippi as soon as possible, because the governor of that state said that the biggest problem they have right now is the fact that they have no communications infrastructure to get information or instructions out to people," he said. "They can very easily put this on a truck and send sound out for a minimum of at least a mile in either direction."

And Blackwater's just there to help get the word out, too, right? Here's more from Xeni:

Vehicle-mounted devices were used by Israeli authorities to scatter groups earlier this year, when Palestinians and Jewish supporters gathered to protest Israel's West Bank separation barrier. Dubbed "The Scream" by the Israeli Army, the device sends out streams of noise in intervals of about 10 seconds. The specific sonic frequencies chosen affect the inner ear, creating dizziness and nausea in human targets.

Is it my imagination, or isn't the use of sonic blasters as weapons to deliberately inflict pain on crowds "torture" as defined in article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture?

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

When sonic blasters are used as weapons, their use is in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. I think the US is a signatory.

UPDATE 9/23: I've had a few skeptical inquiries about how the use of sonic blasters for crowd control could be considered torture. This is not a black and white matter, and indeed deserves a little more discussion than I gave it.

First of all, I should say that the United States, as founded, is a country that believes in the positive powers of crowds. In the United States, we understand that there are many kinds of crowds and that for the most part crowds are benign. This is why Freedom of Assembly is written into the Bill of Rights. Other countries with other systems of government feel differently. For that reason, I think it is probably unwise for the future prospects for democracy in other parts of the world for the US to unleash weaponizable versions of the sonic blaster onto the world market. (They are not overtly marketed that way at present, but the subtext of the manufacturer's website suggests that such potential is meant to be understood.)

Some crowds need to be controlled by police powers. As Katrina neared New Orleans, I wrote about a bad crowd situation I personally observed on the Mass Pike. There was a bad accident. The Mass Pike was closed for something like two and a half hours, trapping thousands of increasingly surly drivers. There were many small accidents resulting form the closure of the highway as frustrated people jostled for position in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Things got out of hand, and drivers desperate to get of the highway began driving in the breakdown lane, blocking emergency vehicles. I actually saw a driver pull out into the breakdown lane cutting off an ambulance with siren blaring and lights flashing. A sonic blaster used as a communications device would have been very useful for helping regain social order. The police PA system was inadequate and many drivers clearly could not hear the instructions being given by police officers. (I personally leaned out my car window and gestured to show the direction the police officer was asking cars to move in to accommodate emergency vehicles because it was clear that drivers couldn't hear him.)

But, for example, using a sonic blaster so that it would inflict pain on anyone pulling into the breakdown lane would have been very problematic. Because of the nature of crowds, it is difficult or impossible to assess individual motivations. A car could be pulling onto the shoulder just because the driver is angry and feels he deserves to get where he's going more than anyone else. Or the car could pull onto the shoulder because grandpa is having a heart attack in the back seat. You just don't know. A device that inflicts pain on crowds for being in a place that the operator of the device feels they shouldn't be is problematic with or without an applicable UN resolution.

Another aspect of the question that has been put to me was, if using a sonic blaster to inflict pain or discomfort is torture, then why is it OK to use guns for crowd control. The first answer is that for the most part it's not. Firing into a crowd is a big NO NO. That's the stuff that international incidents and huge law suits is made of. There are all kinds of elaborate rules and laws and social protocols about the proper uses of firearms. And many similar restrictions have been imposed upon the use of many of the "non-lethal" technologies designed to get around these restrictions. The manufacturer's claim that weaponized sonic blasters do no lasting harm is not a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for the social restrictions on what a government is allowed to do to crowds. Also, there is good reason to be skeptical of that claim, since no one would conceivably allow them to run clinical trials on infants, people with pacemakers, those at risk for strokes, etc. to prove that it really does no lasting harm.

Crowds are social organisms, and the solutions to most problems of crowd control involve social communication, the proper use of sonic blaster technology. Crowd control problems admitting only military solutions are extremely rare, and most of those deserve a close look at the policies that made so many people so angry.

Returning again to the subject of the UN resolution I cited, one of the keys to whether or not something fits the definition of torture is whether the pain is incidental to the goal of the government action, or whether pain is the point. Surely, many people trapped on the Mass Pike with me were uncomfortable and some of them were even in pain resulting from the backup and its consequences. But closing the Mass Pike was not torture, because causing pain and discomfort was not one of the central or intentional the goals. Airlifting some poor unfortunate to a hostpial was the goal. If, on the other hand, some crazy official had decided to close the Mass Pike to teach us a lesson, it might have fit the definiton.

I can even conceive of a situation where a sonic blaster tuned to inflict pain could be deployed in such a way as not to offend againt the UN resolution: If it were used inside of a fenced area with proper signage, the way, say, an electric fence is used.

But for the most part, it seems to me that weaponized sonic blasters are very likely to be abused unless some very strict guidelines for there use are put in place fast. And even then, the cat is already out of the bag in terms of their potential use in supporting dictatorships, which I think is very unfortunate.