The Sonic Pain Stick


New methods of American technical torture continue to roll off private-sector assembly lines in the effort to aid the war on terror. One of the most aggressively pitched is a meter-long sonic pain stick marketed to the Department of Defense by the American Technology Corporation of San Diego.

In a recent full-court press to the media, the company gaily described the sonic baton’s potential to agonize terrorists on airplanes, where flying bullets wouldn’t do. Intended for use at short range, the weapon projects sound intense enough to cause temporary loss of hearing, perhaps nullifying its effect, or possibly shattering the hijacker’s eardrums. It would also probably agonize or rupture the hearing of everyone else in an enclosed cabin, blocking the communication of useful commands like “Get that terrorist bastard!”

Department of Defense efforts at wielding sound waves to inflict unpleasantness have yielded refreshingly poor results. According to National Defense News, the army set up a testing regimen to torture animals—referred to as “surrogates”—but was unable to reliably agonize them. As a result, DoD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate stopped funding some research in the area.

Other arms of the military—like the navy—remain interested in sonic guns to disable foreign ship crews, or at least to make them very angry.

The soldiers, weirdos, sadists, and tinkerers enthusiastic about acoustic technology envision strapping the sonic pain stick to an M-16. While it would be no good in situations where people can shoot back or even throw rocks, it certainly could have its uses in rousting frightened women and children from closets in an occupied Iraq.

America’s nonlethal-weapons scientists note that in our country, hearing aids and surgery can mitigate damage to the outer and middle ear caused by such a weapon. However, mangling of the inner ear is permanent. But in poor or just bombed-flat foreign lands, access to health insurance to pay for damage claims, hearing aids, and good surgeons may be hard to come by. Nonlethal weaponeers are also vexed by the fact that once one’s ears are ruined, the sonic weapon loses its bite.

American Technology Corporation is not alone in the arms race for painful sound. Scientific Applications & Research Associates, a Pentagon contractor also located in Southern California, is pushing its “Sonic Firehose,” an allegedly portable widget with the same glorious mission as the aural agony rod.