Bad Acoustics: Using Music as a Weapon

Bad Acoustics: Using Music as a Weapon

It's no exaggeration to say that Pittsburgh was occupied territory when the G20 descended upon it late last month. Ostensibly, the 6,000 police and National Guards that patrolled the streets during the meetings were there to protect the rights of the people of Pittsburgh from the "violent radicals" who showed up to do little more than cause a ruckus. 

The nature of the police's actions, however, might reveal where the violence was really coming from. Cops were brutal towards the protesters, using rubber bullets, beanbags, pepper spray and teargas against them. Over 200 people were arrested, many of them peaceful whose only crime was being opposed to the systematic rape and pillage of the world's poorest countries (you know, the "abstractions" that Obama talked about).

The scale of police repression was definitely upped in Pittsburgh. "For the first time on American soil," said veteran activist Ashley Smith, "the police also used a sonic weapon against protesters--the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that emits earsplitting noise designed to subdue and disperse crowds."

While the LRAD may have made its American premiere at the G20, it's not the first time it's been used by the US to deal with undesirables. The weapon (and it is a weapon) is well known to the people of Iraq. During the siege of Fallujah in 2004, it was used by the Army's 361st Psychological Operations Company, which "cleared the battlefield" with songs like AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" and "Shoot to Thrill."

All jokes about certain music making anyone want to run for the hills aside, the implications of the LRAD are quite dangerous. The LRAD can emit sounds up to 150 decibels at highly concentrated levels. The average human ear can only take 85 decibels, and prolonged exposure to anything higher causes permanent damage. Though this damage might not leave any visible scar, "weaponized music" may have the potential to leave a much more profound mark.

Speaking specifically of the use of music in torture, Cornell Professor David Yearsley points out that "[o]ne of the great advantages of using music as an implement of torture is that it leaves no physical mark. As Plato and many other writers have known, music works directly on the soul. There is nothing more uplifting or potentially devastating."

Indeed, the 361st is well acquainted with this potential devastation. The company has also helped develop new ways to use music in interrogations of detainees. There have been enough stories from Guantanamo alone to churn the stomach. Detainees at Gitmo have had everything from Eminem to Barney blasted into their ears at loud levels for days--sometimes weeks--at a time. Binyam Mohamed, who was imprisoned at Gitmo until 2004, recalls that after a month (that's right, a month) of hearing the same CD played on repeat 24 hours a day, he came close to losing his grip on reality.

News of music as a torture weapon has become so well-known by now that organizations have been formed calling for the tactic's discontinuation. A British initiative known as Zero dB was formed in December of 2008, and has also gained the backing of the Musicians' Union and the lawyers' organization Reprieve. The organization urges musicians to include one minute of silence in their performances to protest the use of their music in torture techniques.

When the great pioneer of Afrobeat Fela Kuti spoke of music as a weapon, he intended it as a tool for education and inspiration in the hands of the oppressed. For the US government, the notion is a lot more literal--and horrifying. That the LRAD has finally made its American debut merely reveals that the American system ultimately holds its own citizens in the same contempt as its foreign enemies. If this system can even dream of using an art-form so essential to the human soul, then that contempt must run pretty deep.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn Magazine.  His work has also appeared in Socialist Worker, ZNet, CounterPunch, MR Zine and

He can be reached at