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Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Taking some license with the immortal words of Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo, it is now clear that Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials have met the enemy and it is us.

Pogo uttered similar words on a 1970 Earth Day poster, lamenting environmental neglect, but now those words describe a potential threat that is uniquely ours.

The city and county spent more than $100,000 on four military-style weapons -- long-range audio devices (LRADs) that are designed to disperse crowds that have assembled for yet-to-be-determined reasons at locations still unknown throughout our area. The LRAD was featured on our streets during the recent unpleasantness otherwise known as G-20.

As the theory goes, aiming blasts of sound as high as 150 decibels in the direction of perceived troublemakers offers them the choice to stay and risk severe hearing damage or retreat. Originally designed to chase off approaching ships on the high seas, LRADs have been credited with thwarting at least one pirate assault off the coast of Somalia.

LRADs have been sold to the People's Republic of China and used against striking workers in Bangkok. The same week that an LRAD was used to scatter protesters in Pittsburgh, one was deployed in Honduras against deposed president Manuel Zelaya, hiding out in the Brazilian Embassy.

During the 2004 Republican National Convention, an LRAD was on standby in New York City. But even Big Apple officials chose not to use it. For some reason, our local guys took the bait and used this thing for the very first time on American soil, right here in the 'Burgh.

Ah, yes, what a grand distinction for Pittsburgh!

None of the language that American Technology Corp. uses to tout the LRAD makes it sound like anything we need. It will "allow for near instantaneous escalation across the force protection spectrum," it "exceeds the ... Naval Vessel Protection Zone for stand-off distances" and it can broadcast "powerful deterrent tones to enhance response capabilities."

So, are officials anticipating another call to action by anarchists in our fair community• Have we been targeted by a swarm of enemy combatants who uncharacteristically plan to pack our streets and bring our traffic to a halt?

So far, it seems that the terrorists' modus operandi is to travel in small clandestine groups or alone, hardly the situation for which the mighty LRAD is designed.

Other than those unlikely events, that leaves the regular folks in Pittsburgh as the sole potential targets of LRAD. And since the only large crowds we can muster are for Super Bowl and Stanley Cup celebrations or the rare organized labor demonstration, we must be a national security threat deserving the attention and funding of the Department of Homeland Security.

Taken at its most benign, some claim that LRADs can be used as super loudspeakers for public announcements. Of course, regular loudspeakers have worked just fine so far and, simply stated, loudspeakers that convert into weapons, purchased with federal anti-terrorism money, seem out of place in the happy community that is Pittsburgh.

Whether you are a liberal, a moderate or a conservative, this weapon could someday target you. If we are lucky, however, LRAD will turn out to be nothing more than a really dumb idea, a relatively inexpensive version of the subway tunnel under the Allegheny River.

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