Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Trying out an anti-demonstration ‘sonic cannon’

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Maine Marine Patrol is considering purchasing a “sonic cannon” capable of broadcasting earsplitting, “disorienting” sounds, like those that have been used to break up peaceful demonstrations in public spaces in Iraq and the country of Georgia.

The device, called a “long-range acoustic device” (LRAD), is described by its manufacturer, the California-based American Technology Corporation, as having the ability to emit an “attention-getting and highly irritating tone for behavior modification.” (The company’s Web site helpfully adds that the device, which costs roughly $20,000, is two feet in diameter, and weighs 60 pounds, has been used “in combat since December 2003.”)

A demonstration model on loan from the manufacturer was tested in Maine over the July 4 holiday weekend by Marine Patrol officers interested in another aspect of the device: its capability to broadcast highly directed sound that can reach people as far as a mile away — for example to communicate with a boat approaching a security zone, according to Marine Patrol Major John Fetterman.

That was one of the intents of the device when it was invented for the US military in response to the failure of a security zone to protect the USS Cole from a suicide-bomber’s attack in a Yemeni port in 2000. That attack killed 17 sailors.

But it wasn’t the LRAD’s only purpose, nor the most worrisome to those who might be more inclined to peaceful assemblies than attacks on warships. The manufacturer’s Web site touts another “feature” of the LRAD — its “warning” sound. That tone can be as loud as 151 decibels, which is enough to cause permanent hearing damage to a person as far as 1000 feet away after just a few seconds of exposure. So if a Marine Patrol officer even accidentally switched the device over to “warning” mode from its more benign “communication” mode, it could literally and permanently deafen anyone in its line of fire.

According to news reports, the warning tones from LRADs, which can be mounted on trucks as well as boats, have been used against civilians by Iraqi police and US troops in Iraq over the past few years, and were used in November 2007 by police in Tblisi, Georgia, to disperse an anti-government rally. (The New York Police Department deployed at least one LRAD near a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention in September 2004, but didn’t use the warning tone.)

The most-often touted “success” of the device’s warning tone was in defense of a Carnival Cruise Lines cruise ship attacked by pirates firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades off the coast of Somalia in 2005. While it did repel the attack, one of the two men who used the device against the pirates says he has lost some of his hearing as a result.

But perhaps we can take some comfort in Fetterman’s remark that if the Marine Patrol did buy an LRAD, it would probably buy “only one” and move it from boat to boat as needed. And he says the agency is “only looking at it for communications,” not for crowd-dispersal purposes.

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