The unintended consequences of (failed) diplomacy


U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba (photo: U.S. State Department)

, McClatchy, reports on the mystery surrounding a sonic device used against U.S. and Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba that caused hearing loss. Johnson writes that it is known that the “U.S. military deploys nonlethal noise and radiation weapons to incapacitate aggressors,” like a device that “can hit you with sound that will make you not be able to stand up” or that can “literally heat up water molecules under the skin’s surface.” And, of course, “[r]esearchers have also experimented with ultrasonic and infrasonic frequencies above and below the level at which humans can hear,” which, in some cases, “can cause physical discomfort at high intensity.” “They call them brown tones,” said Vahan Simidian, the CEO of HPV Technologies Inc., a firm that makes “long-range speakers that can send sound as far as two miles.” Why do they call them brown tones? Because they “can make you sick to your stomach.” And you can guess what happens next.

But the device used in Cuba was different. How? This device caused hearing loss in those it targeted. So why did Cuba purposefully deafen the diplomats? Vince Houghton, an intelligence historian employed by the International Spy Museum, speculates that it was a run-of-the-mill harassment campaign that got out of hand. Says Houghton:

The most likely scenario to me is this was used to harass, to annoy, to kind of goof off and be, like, ‘Ha ha! Let’s make them sick to their stomach. Let’s make them dizzy.’ And then, ‘Oh crap, it went too far…’

Houghton also believes that someone else was involved in developing this weapon, because the technology would be too “resource intensive” for “cash-strapped Cuba.”

The Cuban government responded by stating that it “has never permitted, nor will permit, that Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic officials or their families, with no exception.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that “investigators were looking into the possibilities that the incidents were carried out by a third country such as Russia, possibly operating without the knowledge of Cuba’s formal chain of command.”

The only good news from this twisted tale is that the unknown sonic device was probably intended only to harass, not disable. But when we read this piece our first thought was this: what if the resources marshalled to create this and the other appalling sound-based weapons were spent instead on educating the public on how to protect their hearing or distributing ear protection to vulnerable populations? That is, why do we accept that there is always money for weapons, but so little for public health?

Thanks to Bill Young, PhD, a noise reduction advocate from Stamford, Connecticut, for the link to The Washington Post article.

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