Israeli Army's PsyOps At The
Bethlehem Church Of The Nativity

By Shawna Richer

'It can literally drive you crazy'
When the Israelis started playing loud music and firing guns into the air to play on the Palestinians' minds, they were employing a powerful, age-old form of torture.
Everyone is guilty of being grouchy, distracted and less than their optimal selves when running on too little sleep because of a late night on the town or gruelling deadlines at the office.
But what if we had way too little shuteye, or none at all for days on end? Would our mental facilities fall apart? Would our physical well-being deteriorate? Would it be ruined beyond repair? Would we die?
Sleep experts say yes, yes, no and probably. It's why sleep deprivation is such a common form of torture in the world, according to the United Nations. And it's why modern soldiers are trained to combat it. "It can literally drive you crazy," said Dr. James Maas, professor of psychology at Cornell University.
"When you take sleep deprivation to extreme, such as in brainwashing, it can cause heroically patriotic citizens to denounce their own nation, to denounce their ideals, to sign false declarations and join political movements that have been lifelong distasteful anathemas to them.
"After you go about five to 10 days without sleep, you begin to lose your bearings. Madness takes over."
Sleep deprivation has been in the spotlight again this week as the Israeli army employs psychological operations in its attempts to force about 100 Palestinian gunman to end their siege of the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity. By denying them food, water and sleep, the Israelis are hoping to break down not only the gunmen's physical defences, but also their mental ones.
During the day, the Israelis try to irritate the Palestinians by blowing huge volumes of smoke at the church. After dark, they shoot rounds of gunfire into the air, set off percussion grenades and broadcast Arabic music over loudspeakers at ear-splitting levels to keep them awake.
There's no telling yet whether it's working. But as Maas, who has studied sleep for 33 years, explains, there's no reason it wouldn't eventually.
Nevertheless, Dr. James MacFarlane, psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto and lab director for the sleep clinic at the Centre for Sleep and Chronobiology, says it's not as easy as spinning some annoying Top 40 songs. That's where the smoke and grenades come in. The more irritants the better.
"It takes more than noise to keep someone from falling asleep," said MacFarlane, scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the National Sleep Conference in Toronto on May 4. "The elements it takes to keep someone awake become the torture as much as the sleep deprivation itself. The stimulation required is quite substantial."
Torture has a rich and grotesque history. But it was in the Middle Ages that sleep deprivation came into its own, mainly because of an Italian named Ippolito Marsili, who viewed it as a humane form of torture because it did not involve the breaking of bones or the burning of flesh, Phyllis Rose wrote in an 1986 article for Atlantic Monthly entitled Tools of Torture.
Marsili invented a device that came to be known by several names, including the Judas Cradle and -- this is understatement for you -- the Alarm Clock.
He devised a harrowing-looking contraption resembling a very large, thick arrow. Suspended strategically, the victim could keep their anus and genitals from being penetrated and pierced only if he could stay awake. Nodding off was asking for quite the wake-up call.
It marked a watershed moment for torturers, who had previously been limited to gruesome mutilation devices to elicit information from their captives. The methods would often result in death, which wasn't always the desired outcome.
Sleep deprivation is "very effective because you can do it without inflicting physical injury," MacFarlane said, adding that it can be ensured in a number of ways, such as dumping cold water on the victim's head, prodding him repeatedly or forcing him to walk around.
"The urge to sleep is what makes you succumb," he said.
Perhaps the most famous use of psych ops in recent times came against Manuel Noriega, who holed up in the Vatican embassy in Panama City in December of 1989. U.S. psych-op troops hooked up enormous loudspeakers and blasted the music of the likes of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi and heavy metal band Quiet Riot. Noriega, an opera buff, surrendered after a week, shortly after the Vatican asked the G.I.'s to turn down the racket.
Since humans require one hour of sleep for every two hours of being awake, early symptoms of sleep deprivation are common among almost all of us. They range from irritability and the inability to concentrate to the loss of sense of humour, major mood swings and a reduced immunity to disease and viral infections. As the sleep debt increases, so do the symptoms.
"After that, you've got a whole laundry list of cognitive functioning reductions," Maas said. "You can't remember. You can't do complex things. You reduce your ability to think logically. You can't think critically. You make bad decisions. Your ability to communicate goes down. You become paranoid, irrational and will begin to hallucinate."
Scientists know that an animal such a hamster or mouse will die after being keep awake for two or three days. It would take longer to do in a human, but for obvious reasons, this experiment goes unconducted.
In 1965, Randy Gardner, an American high-school student, stayed awake for a record of a little more than 11 days as part of a Stanford University study. After a few nights of good sleep, he was back to normal.
"But that was under optimal conditions," MacFarlane stressed. "And at the end he was delirious. He couldn't even talk."
But psych ops don't always work. During the standoff with David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., in 1993, the FBI played loud recordings of dental drills and rabbits being slaughtered, and there are reports that country one-hit wonder Billy Ray Cyrus's Achy Breaky Heart was in heavy rotation. But the Davidians remained impervious to the peal.
An FBI spokesman later admitted on Nightline that the goal was to keep the Davidians from being able to sleep in order to break Koresh's control. It didn't work because sleep deprivation actually makes its victims more suggestible. Rather than loosen the leader's control, it may have enhanced it.

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