Last month, news broke that multiple US diplomats and personnel stationed in Havana, Cuba had been attacked or exposed to some kind of device that inflicted symptoms ranging from hearing loss to brain injury. This was highly unusual, even by the standards of US-Cuban relations, which thawed slightly in the last years of President Obama’s second term.
The AP has published a new report on the incidents, revealing the entire situation is even weirder than we knew. There are now at least 21 US victims and a few from Canada. That’s strange in and of itself; Cuba has maintained a good relationship with Canada for decades. But the symptom and experiences of the victims are varied and don’t point to a single cause. Some individuals reported hearing loud grinding noises that were localized to their beds and ceased as soon as they moved away from them. But that’s scarcely a universal experience, as the AP reports:
In several episodes recounted by U.S. officials, victims knew it was happening in real time, and there were strong indications of a sonic attack.
Some felt vibrations, and heard sounds — loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas. Others heard the grinding noise. Some victims awoke with ringing in their ears and fumbled for their alarm clocks, only to discover the ringing stopped when they moved away from their beds.
The attacks seemed to come at night. Several victims reported they came in minute-long bursts.
Yet others heard nothing, felt nothing. Later, their symptoms came.
The scope keeps widening. On Tuesday, the State Department disclosed that doctors had confirmed another two cases, bringing the total American victims to 21. Some have mild traumatic brain injury, known as a concussion, and others permanent hearing loss.
There’s a phenomenon known as mass hysteria, in which symptoms of “disease” can spread from one observer to another, often without any conscious intent by either the original victim or those who observe them. Wikipedia has an extensive list of the known incidents throughout history, and it’s not short. But it’s also not generally thought to mimic symptoms of concussion, much less hearing loss. Typically, you’d also expect victims of mass hysteria to show the same symptoms or describe similar causes, not wildly different ones.
Then-Secretary of State John Kerry attended the re-opening of the United States’ Cuban embassy on August 14, 2015.
While the attacks occurred on Cuban soil, they may not have occurred with any support from the Cuban government. The US has not accused the Cuban government of attacking its diplomats, and neither has Canada. In fact, Cuban authorities have been described as being unusually cooperative in searching for clues as to what has befallen both the US and Canadian diplomats.
It’s possible to build a weapon that leverages infrasound or ultrasound, and human beings can have physiological reactions to sounds we can’t consciously hear, as has been demonstrated in repeated ultrasound experiences. But the injured personnel aren’t reporting feeling more afraid or depressed; they’re being deafened, concussed, and/or left with symptoms like tinnitus. While it’s possible to target a small area with a localized sound “beam,” the equipment required is neither small nor cheap. Repeated searches of the areas where victims report hearing noise turned up nothing, and not everyone who has had a physical injury remembers any potential cause at all.
The investigation is ongoing, but no public leads or useful information have been revealed.