They were sure that the Cubans, aided by the Russians, used sophisticated technology to attack the brains and nervous systems of US diplomats… until it turned out to be crickets.
The New York Times now reveals that scientists have solved a two-year-old mystery that provoked a major diplomatic scandal and led to a complete turnaround in US-Cuba relations. The mystery concerned the health of American staff at the US Embassy in Havana. US diplomats and the media called it a “sonic attack.” They were convinced that it was a pernicious example of “sharp power,” a term we covered in yesterday’s edition of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary. Some suspected the Russians and then the Chinese of providing the Cubans with the technology capable of attacking people’s brains while leaving no traces or clues about its origin.
The story broke in November 2016, when American diplomats in Havana “complained of persistent, high-pitched sounds followed by a range of symptoms, including headaches, nausea and hearing loss.” After two years of expensive investigation by both American and Cuban teams seeking what everyone was certain to be a technological cause, scientists have now identified the true source of the sound, audible on the recordings: a Caribbean cricket.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. An insect
2. A team sport invented in England, played with a ball, a bat and a wicket, which is still popular in its former colonies but considered a British eccentricity in the rest of the world
3. Another way of describing something that reflects fair play, as in the expression: “That isn’t cricket”
4. An instrument of torture imagined by American diplomats in Cuba
The media wasted no time amplifying the story of a deliberate sonic assault. “Amid an international uproar, a recording of the sinister droning was widely circulated in the news media,” The New York Times reports. Recently, when speculation about criminal intent was still rife, The New Yorker came back to the story, reminding readers that: “All the victims described being bombarded by waves of pressure in their heads.”
The choice of the word “bombarded” may not be innocent. Though the medical experts who investigated the symptoms found no evidence of physical effects, the media were eager to develop the story as a modern version of Cold War lore, where the fear of bombardment was permanent. Senator Marco Rubio, who had opposed Barack Obama’s policy of reopening relations with Cuba, was certain the Cubans were to blame.
In September 2018, NBC News announced that US intelligence agencies had strong evidence leading them to “suspect Russia.” MSNBC’s Ken Dilanian, affirming “this was an intentional attack,” accused the Russians of using “some kind of microwave that is so sophisticated the Americans don’t fully understand it.” One former Trump administration official outlined the reasoning: “Who else has secret weapons programs? Who else has the ability to conduct an operation like this? It fits their pattern, their style.” Political scientist Joseph Nye might be tempted to agree that this was an enemy sharp power operation.
Even with the knowledge that it wasn’t the butler but the crickets who did it, experts are still left wondering about the political dimension of an incident with such serious diplomatic impact. The Obama administration had boldly reengaged with Cuba after decades of an ideologically motivated embargo. But that has ground to a halt under the Trump administration. The New Yorker article mentions that “in Cuba and in the U.S., the advocates of diplomatic opening are no longer in office.”
In June 2018, the “Havana Syndrome” encouraged some to complain of a similar problem at the US Consulate in Guangzhou, China. The New York Times observed that “it remains unclear whether the illnesses are the result of attacks at all. Other theories have included toxins, listening devices that accidentally emitted harmful sounds or even mass hysteria.” Could the whole thing be explained by a return to the McCarthy-era hysteria of an anti-American conspiracy?
The scientists who have identified the crickets do not claim that there could not have been another cause of the physical effects, but considering their findings and the fact that not a whit of evidence has been found for a technological source, the thesis of mass hysteria should not be discounted. The character of this mass hysteria — if that’s what it is — is consistent with what we can observe every day in US media, for whom Vladimir Putin’s Russia has replaced the Soviet Union. It may also be related to the emerging obsession with sharp power.
When Donald Trump promised to make America great again, everyone assumed that he was referring to the culture, politics and business ambiance of the 1950s, that period of an expanding Cold War economy under a Republican president, sandwiched between World War II and the humiliation of the Vietnam War. Subversive evil always originated in communist Russian, the communist empire adept at infecting the minds and brains of otherwise well-meaning Americans, waiting to be smoked out by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Once Trump was elected in 2016, the Democrats themselves and their media have been striving to bring back the “greatness” of the 1950s by reestablishing Russia as the villain who had stolen an election that was rightfully theirs. And, of course, the Russia-Cuba connection was the major theme of the period, culminating in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
With the Havana Syndrome, we had all the elements that could contribute to a Cold War style hysteria… until now, when the narrative has been rudely interrupted by the chirping of crickets.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.