Music as a Weapon? It’s No Joke

Britney Spears; Somali Pirates (FoxNews.com)

FoxNews.com’s depiction of Britney Spears’ supposed effect on Somali pirates.

“Britney Spears is being used as a secret weapon to fight Somali pirates,” reports FoxNews.com (10/30/13). “The singer’s hits are being blasted out by tanker crews to deter kidnap attacks.”

“Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most,” Fox quotes British naval officer Rachel Owens. “These guys can’t stand Western culture or music, making Britney’s hits perfect.”

NBC (10/29/13) also picked up the story:

She’s sold close to 100 million albums worldwide, but it seems Britney Spears can’t count Somali pirates among her many fans. In fact, her tunes are being used to turn the tide on high-seas crimes.

Time (10/28/13) claimed that “the only thing Somali pirates hate more than not kidnapping people is ‘Oops I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears.” The item said that security forces were “trying to deter pirates, not torture them,” quoting a quip that “using Justin Bieber would be against the Geneva Convention.”

Riot police with LRAD (cc photo: Margaret Killjoy)

LRAD deployed against protesters in Pittsburgh (cc photo: Margaret Killjoy)

Funny story, right? Well, maybe not all that funny.  The piracy-deterring technique referred to in these articles is more formally known as a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD. The German magazine Spiegel (11/15/05) described it as “a futuristic sonic cannon developed by the Pentagon,”  writing that “the weapon is essentially a small dish that beams hellishly loud noise that is deafening but not lethal.”

Referring to pirates who were repelled by a LRAD while attacking a cruise ship, Spiegel wrote, “It’s possible they received permanent hearing damage, but at the very least they experienced an excruciating headache and ear pain to the point that they could no longer see or hear.” That’s certainly less cute than taking advantage of a supposed Somali aversion to Western pop music.

And the devices are not just used against pirates armed with automatic weapons: Spiegel notes the police departments of New York and Boston have purchased them, and indeed LRADs were deployed to help clear Liberty Plaza of Occupy Wall Street protesters (L.A. Times, 12/2/11).

Joking about pop music that’s so bad it’s painful helps obscure the all-too-serious use of sound as a weapon that causes actual pain. This was taken a step further by the NBC piece, by Today show contributor Ree Hines, which featured a roundup of other “songs used to drive criminal minds to the breaking point”:

Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” was played on loop for 20 days at a U.S. prison in Kabul, according to a detainee who told Human Rights Watch that “plenty lost their minds” during the broadcast.

The Human Rights Watch report (12/19/05) linked to is less amusing, citing as it does prisoners’ accounts of being “subjected to weeks of sleep deprivation and constant loud music and noise, as well as being beaten during interrogations.” 

Likewise, NBC reports that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” “was said to serve as the morning wake-up call for years” at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. The source linked to (Daily News, 6/2/12) actually says that prisoners were “strapped to chairs and played music…at loud volumes for hours or days on end,” and accurately refers to this as a form of torture.

Do you suppose Hines might be less inclined to make jokes about music being used to torture people if it was pointed out that the US government knew that “the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent” (Atlantic, 4/26/13) and had nothing to do with “criminal minds”? It’s hard to say.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.