Posts Tagged 'weapons'

Bring on the mind control, please

You don’t expect to find anything funny in a book with a title like this: Breeding Bio Insecurity: How US Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk and Making Us All Less Secure (Chicago, 2009). In the London Review of Books Thomas Jones writes that “Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester make a compelling case for a radical and immediate change in America”s biosecurity policy.”  Foreign Affairs says “the authors make a plausible and disturbing case.” Other reviewers have called it “forceful and provocative,” even “indispensable.”

The book argues that the conditions of research in bioweapons and biosecurity pose a greater risk to the health and security of Americans than do bioterrorist attacks, but that this risk can be countered and defeated with greater efforts against infectious diseases and greater international oversight and transparency. It also raises the question about the moral and legal issues around the billions spent since 9/11 on R&D into bioweapons counter-measures like antibiotics, antivirals, antidotes and vaccines. Testing them clearly requires ready availability of the bioweapons agents themselves, something that contravenes the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of microbial or other biological agents or toxins.

Ever since Hannibal’s forces threw clay pots full of snakes onto the decks of enemy ships in an ancient naval battle against the Pergamenes, nations have turned to biological warfare when it has suited them – especially when it can be claimed that massive reserves of anthrax, smallpox, plague, ricin, botulinum and ebola serve to defend the homeland. Despite the extreme unlikeliness of a large-scale biological terrorist attack, the United States, for example, has 219 labs studying anthrax alone. The number of people working in biodefence has increased twentyfold in the past decade.

A review in Science claims that the authors’ argument deserves serious attention:

Klotz and Sylvester spotlight the huge sums of money invested by the U.S. government in biodefense research. Here, they claim, secrecy is having corrosive effects. They also argue that the money pouring into biodefense research is out of proportion to the level of threat. In addition, they contend, this massive investment has backfired to create more risk because now more scientists are working with dangerous pathogens, thus increasing the chances of accident, theft, and deliberate misuse.

All weighty stuff. But, as Thomas Jones in LRB notes, Klotz and Sylvester also get carried away by what sounds like Cold War paranoia. At one point they bring up the subject of “the scariest weapons of all: mind-control agents.” These are largely the realm of science fiction, but apparently white-ruled South Africa carried out research into the use of MDMA for crowd control. Given the apartheid regime’s usual methods – attack dogs, tear gas, beatings, and shootings – a plan to use Ecstasy to suppress a revolt sounds positively benign.

“Ecstasy or smallpox: I know which I’d rather be attacked with. Bring on the ‘mind-control’, please.”

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons licence, uploaded by ClevelandSGS

The weaponization of music

Sir Thomas Beecham was once asked if he had ever conducted any Stockhausen. His quick reply: “No, but I’ve trodden in some.” Beecham made no bones about his dislike of the German composer’s spiky oeuvre, an opinion probably shared by many of us. Jarring and tuneless as much of Stockhausen sounds, his music was created to express something, even if, as Stravinsky has said, all it achieved was to express itself. The hapless listener exposed to it for any length of time may feel he or she has undergone martyrdom, but Stockhausen would have been shocked and affronted to learn that his music was being piped into a prison cell for no benign purpose.

I am not aware that the CIA has subjected any of its “clients” to Stockhausens’ aleatory serial compositions, but there is ample evidence that certain kinds of music have been used extensively both as torture and as a weapon of war. Although much has been written on this subject, there is scarcely a mention of it in the literature of medicine or psychology, another of those gaps in clinical knowledge that leave one with questions about possible ideological determinants. Yet a simple Google search will quickly provide answers for anyone wondering what the songs of Britney Spears, Eminem, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica and Nine Inch Nails have in common with the theme tunes of the children’s television shows Barney and Sesame Street. The disturbing truth is that all have been used to break people – to degrade them and crush their will to resist.

Suzanne Cusick’s article Music as torture / Music as weapon traces current practice back to experiments conducted in the 1940s by US, British and Canadian intelligence at Yale, Cornell and McGill. Researchers discovered that sonic disturbances – so called “no touch” torture – induced feelings of helplessness and could be more effective on prisoners than beatings, starvation or sleep deprivation. Armies have been jangling the nerves of opponents with acoustic weapons since the battle of Jericho, but the deliberate use of recorded music in psy ops and as an instrument of torture is a recent development of the American military. Cusick also points to other disturbing historical precedents, not least the cruel musical rituals at Nazi concentration camps.

The choice of music, chiefly metal and rap at full blast, is frightening enough with its repetitive thrashing, high distortion, and guttural invective. One could imagine a 12-tone quartet or free jazz being equally effective. But, as Adam Shatz observes in a recent article in the London Review of Books, not many military interrogators listen to Stockhausen or Cecil Taylor. The choice of torture music generally reflects the taste of the torturers. To hear a selection of the kinds of music preferred by the US military, see this post from last May on Blog Me No Blogs. Mother Jones has also published a “torture playlist.” Jonathan Pieslak has recently published a book on American soldiers and music in the Iraq war in which he recounts the sonic attack on Fallujah in 2004 and how soldiers would get pumped up or “crunked” for combat with the same tunes they later projected towards the enemy using a Long Range Acoustic Device.

A year ago Reprieve, a British human rights law group and the U.K. Musicians Union launched Zero dB, a “silent protest” over the use of music in interrogations. Through zero dB, musicians are speaking out against the use of music for torture and calling on the American administration to outlaw it. There is a growing list of musicians objecting to the practice and calling for the humane treatment of prisoners. This list includes Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

Andy Worthington, writing on AlterNet, reports that some artists (for example, James Hetfield of Metallica) have been supportive of the use of their music by the military. Others, like Eminem, AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Bee Gees, Christina Aguilera, Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have chosen to remain silent.


Allbright B. Am I a torturer? Mother Jones 2008 Mar. Available from:

Bayoumi M. Disco Inferno. The Nation 2005 Dec 7. Available from:

Cloonan M. Bad vibrations. New Humanist 2009 Mar/Apr;124(2). Available from:

Cusick SG. Music as torture / music as weapon. Revista Transcultural de Música / Transcultural Music Review 2006 Dec;10. Available from:

Cusick SG. “You are in a place that is out of the world. . .”: music in the detention camps of the “Global War on Terror”. Journal of the Society for American Music 2008 Feb;2(1):1-26. Available from:

Davies C. Torture music leaves no marks but destroys minds. Reprieve [Online]. 2009 Jun 15. Available from:

Ford P. Music and torture. Dial “M” for musicology: music, musicology and related matters [Online]. Available from:

Pellegrinelli L. Scholarly discord. Chronicle of higher education [serial online] 2009 May;55(35):B6-B9.

Pieslak J. Sound targets: American soldiers and music in the Iraq war. Indiana University Press; 2009.

Ross A. Futility music. The New Yorker [serial online] 2008 May 29. Available from:

Shatz A. Short cuts. London Review of Books [serial online] 2009 Jul 23;31(14):21. Available from:

Stafford Smith C. Torture by music. New Statesman [serial online] 2006 Nov 26. Available from:

Worthington A. A history of music torture in the War on Terror. AlterNet [Online] 2008 Dec 17. Available from:

The weaponization of toxicity


In a previous post I looked at the use of poison for state-sponsored assassination in the recent past. In the period since the assassination attempt on Khalid Mishal by Israeli agents in 1997 I have not found any other reports of the use of fentanyl for murder. While its lethal effect on people who have used it as a heroin substitute has been notorious, I discovered another even more disturbing application of the drug.

Fentanyl (N-phenyl-N-(1-(2-phenylethyl)4-piperidinyl)propanamide) is a potent synthetic opioid agent widely used for surgical analgesia and sedation. It is 200 times more potent than morphine. In therapeutic use fentanyl is quickly absorbed through the skin and is frequently applied as a skin patch. There has been research into the use of this drug in spray format.

Although prodigiously useful in the operating room, fentanyl has toxic cousins that deliver a lot more than freedom from pain. Nonpharmaceutical fentanyl use can be deadly. According to a 2008 MMWR report 1,013 deaths in six jurisdictions were attributed to fentanyl abuse in a two-year period, making this the largest such epidemic ever reported. Recent data on illicit fentanyl and its analogues indicate that these compounds are becoming increasingly popular on the drug market. The street will sell you a pocketful of sweet dreams with many aliases: China White, Synthetic Heroin, Mexican Brown, Persian White, Apache, China Girl, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, and Tango & Cash. All of these potentially lethal hits make morphine look like child’s play.

But beyond its common use as a street drug, fentanyl — or, more accurately, powerful variants of the drug — is being studied by a number of governments for official use as a biochemical weapon. For example, a fentanyl derivative was used to end the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, in which many hostages died from accidental overdoses of the narcotic. [1,2]

It was this act of terrorism that first brought the issue of incapacitating biochemical weapons to widespread public attention. On October 23, 2002, a group of Chechen terrorists raided the Dubrovka theatre during a performance and took 800 people hostage. The 50-odd hostage takers were well armed and the women among them were wired with high explosives. They demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and threatened to kill the hostages if their demand was not met. On the morning of October 26, Russian Special Forces troops disseminated a biochemical agent through the ventilation system, putting everyone who remained in the auditorium into a deep sleep. Approximately 30 minutes later, the troops stormed the building, killing the hostage takers and ending the crisis. 125 hostages died from the effects of the gas, and many more were severely injured. Several days later, the Russian Health Minister let it be known that the gas contained a derivative of fentanyl, but he did not reveal the specific nature of the agent used. According to Russian media reports the drug used was the formidable incapacitating agent Kolokol-1, whose active ingredient is secret but could possibly be the extraordinarily potent carfentanil or 3-Methylfentanyl. Sprayed into the air as an anesthetic gas, it takes effect very quickly, within one to three seconds, reportedly rendering its victims unconscious for two to six hours.

The deadly denouement of the Moscow theatre siege is a frightening example of how incapacitating biochemical weapons can be used by the state. The obvious ethical questions aside, it has generated increasing interest on the part of governments in exploring the weaponization of drugs. Indeed, as science and technology continue to advance, our rapidly increasing understanding of human physiological systems indicates that the development of new incapacitating biochemical weapons is not only possible but inevitable.
In a recent article in International affairs, J.P. Perry Robinson discusses the growing concern over the use of chemical weapons, not so much by terrorists, but by the state for purposes of what it interprets as counterterrorism. [3] Of course, counterinsurgency applications of toxic chemicals have been in use for decades. Major European powers used them in their colonial domains, the Americans in Vietnam. But the re-emergence of biochemical weapons in counterterrorist guise is troubling. Police forces in the UK, for example, are equipped either with Agent CS or with PAVA spray for law enforcement use, and, according to Perry Robinson, the readiness with which the US Marine Corps has taken to Agent OC — a toxic riot control spray produced from ground chili-peppers — seems an indication of a trend. So, perhaps, is the absence of any serious criticism of the Russian government for having authorized the use of a lethal neurotoxin to end the 2002 hostage incident.

Since 1992 proponents of so-called “non-lethal weapons” have been attempting to loosen the constraints imposed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on the weaponization of other forms of toxicity, such as riot control agents (RCAs). In a process of creeping legitimization, several countries now appear to be pursuing more lethal forms of incapacitating biochemical weapons.

The process has been one of not only “public diplomacy” and other more hidden pressures for exemption, but also one of national legislation. In the United States the “Ensign Amendment” of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act asserts that “riot control agents are not chemical weapons.” No other state that is party to the CWC has adopted such a position, nor even commented publicly on what the United States has done. At the same time, the failure to amend the the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention to prohibit the growing acceptance of RCAs demonstrates the varying levels of ignorance, incompetence, heedlessness, short-termism and conflicting political interests among the world’s governments. A situation in which some types of toxic weapon are tolerated but others are not is certain to be unstable.

Let us hope that saner views will prevail now that the Bush years are over. Otherwise a toxic chemical attack could be coming to a theatre near you.


1. Geoghegan J, Tong JL. Chemical warfare agents. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain. 2006 1 Dec ;6(6):230-234

2. Pearson A. Incapacitating biochemical weapons: science, technology, and policy for the 21st century. Nonproliferation review. 2006 July;13(2):151-188.

3. Perry Robinson JP. Difficulties facing the Chemical Weapons Convention. International affairs. 2008;84(2):223-239.



My Tweets

My Delicious Bookmarks

PubMed Logo

Blog Stats

  • 73,373 hits