Ansari: Song does not remain the same as torture

“Even if you have earplugs, even if you cover your ears, you feel your brain rattle. It makes you feel extremely horrible and you have to run away from it.”

This is a how an Occupy Wall Street protester described being exposed to a sound cannon, a sophisticated loudspeaker which eyewitnesses claim was deployed early last Tuesday morning to empty New York City’s Zuccotti Park of protesters.

Such reports have not been confirmed by police. If they are true, the event will mark yet another recent example of the use of amplified sound as a weapon.

The electric loudspeaker was invented in the 19th century to enhance communication and to amplify music. Without it, we would be unable to experience the pleasure of recorded sound in our own living rooms or listen to our favourite music over headphones. To a music-lover, the appropriation of this remarkable technology as a mechanism of force seems particularly shocking.

A sound cannon uses loudspeakers to produce focused beams of sound or ‘ultrasound’ that are sufficiently intolerable that they force those who hear them to move away, creating a powerful tool for controlling protests and riots. Many experts say the resulting sound exceeds the human pain threshold. It can also produce disorientation, nausea and permanent hearing damage. Certain infrasound frequencies can even interfere with breathing or rupture internal organs, causing death.

The first time a sound cannon, or Long Range Acoustic Device, was used against civilians in the United States was at the 2004 Pittsburgh G20 Conference, where it was deployed in combination with tear gas and stun grenades. Two years later, a system was purchased for Toronto’s G20 summit, although it was never used. Toronto police claim the system will only be used as a communication device and is “not a use of force option.”

The militarizing of sound extends beyond the use of single tones. In overseas conflicts, the U.S. Army has used music to motivate soldiers through in-helmet MP3 players; to harass entire cities (as in the Siege of Fallujah, where American pop music was blasted into the city for days on end); and to enable individualized torture of possible insurgents and terrorists.

This is not, of course, the first time in history music has been used as a tool of psychological warfare. Yet the MP3 player has made it significantly easier for soldiers to turn the pleasure of music into pain. As a result, in the various detention centres established by the U.S. military during the Global War on Terror, the use of loud music as a non-touch torture technique has become quite commonplace.

Musicologist Suzanne Cusick has examined army training manuals and interviews with former detainees to better understand this procedure, known as ‘futility.’ The detainee is played Western music, often hip-hop or heavy metal, at a very loud volume for extended periods of time. Frequently, this occurs in combination with stress positions, extremes of light or dark or the deprivation of food and water. The goal, of course, is to ‘break’ the detainee. Cusick found the music chosen was often extremely offensive to the primarily Muslim detainees, resulting in what she calls “psychic pain” in some subjects. When such music was played at extreme volume over an extended period of time, detainees described experiencing a kind of psychological betrayal that struck at the very essence of their cultural identity — an ‘assault on the soul.’

When I introduce my students to Cusick’s work, at least one will usually joke about the ‘torture’ they have experienced thanks to a roommate or sibling’s music collection. Certainly we all know how profoundly irritating unwanted sounds can be, because we cannot close our ears as we can our eyes. Few of us, however, have experienced real, intentional physical pain or injury from a loud sound directed at us. Few of us have been forced to endure, without sleep and for days on end, excessively loud music that epitomizes everything our culture has taught us to abhor.

In weaponizing music, Cusick argues, the United States has adapted technologies intended to create a pleasurable private or shared musical experience in order to deny someone else’s right to psychological privacy and physical well-being. Music used to torture is more than just the experiential equivalent of the sound cannon — that is, painful and disorienting. If the music used has cultural meaning to the listener, which it invariably does, it has the ability to stand in for the military force inflicting the torture. In combining this articulation of power with the significant psychological and physiological effects of loud sound, this particular sonic weapon becomes especially effective.

What does it mean to musicians when the music they create to entertain and inspire is used to cause suffering? What does it mean when cultural imperialism is not simply the result of commerce and communication, but is deliberately manufactured in an individualized situation with the intent of inflicting grave psychological injury?

These questions do not have easy answers, but they do demonstrate that musical torture, seen by some as ‘torture lite,’ has serious ramifications for our culture. We think of musical sounds and the technologies that label them as ‘innocent’ and purely pleasurable. Yet their apparent innocence, as history has repeatedly proven, in fact makes them easy to appropriate for significantly less innocent ends.

Emily Abrams Ansari is a professor of music history at The University of Western Ontario.