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The Deadly Nature of "Non-Lethal" Weapons

The next generation of "non-lethal" weapons pose human rights threats that their benign title hides.
 
 
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Plasma clouds, microwave beams, electrified bullets -- military contractors have been developing futuristic new combat technologies under the public radar. Already, the TASER stun gun has emerged from the pages of speculative fiction, and into the hands of military, corrections, and law enforcement personnel (See "Stunning Revelations," November 2006). But stun technology is just one tool in the arsenal for developers of proposed "non-lethal" weapons.

Guard that perimeter

For the past several years, Taser International, Inc. has been testing products with the military market in mind. Most recently it has been working on Tasernet, a weapon it describes as a "non-lethal area denial and force protection system." In October, the Taser Remote Area Denial (T-RAD) concept was officially unveiled at the annual United States Army meeting in Washington, D.C.

When used in tandem with what Taser bills as the "companion computer networking system," Tasernet, the defensive weaponry amounts to a "Star Trek"-style forcefield, stunning uninvited guests. Tasernet can capture digital facial scans, allowing authorized users through the forcefield. According to Taser's press release, the T-RAD, based on the Taser X26 core technology, is "designed to be deployed at checkpoints, facility perimeters, embassies, airports, and other critical infrastructures." The weapon is expected to be ready for deployment in 2008.

Projectiles with a zing

In July, three inventors applied for a U.S. patent on research that would enable the creation of wire-free, "piezoelectric" stun guns. (Piezoelectric crystals generate voltage in response to mechanical vibrations--"piezo" means "push" in Greek.) In their patent application, the inventors explain that their invention would create darts containing an explosive charge, which detonate upon contact with pierced skin. The guns could be used from a distance of nearly 500 feet.

In September 2005, the U.S. Correctional Special Operations Group (U.S. C-SOG) and the Australia-based Harrington Group also announced an agreement to develop weapons capable of introducing a piezoelectric charge to "traditional ammunition and other projectiles such as rubber bullets," according to a jointly issued press release. With a patent pending, the two companies have trademarked the weapon technology under the name "ShockRounds."

U.S. C-SOG is a corrections training firm specializing in emergency tactical operations for penal institutions; it boasts of having relationships with more than 4,000 correctional institutions in 14 countries. The companies describe ShockRounds as a "safe, less-lethal" product designed to provide correctional employees with a new way to subdue inmates and to quell "serious crowd disturbances and threat situations."

Set phaser to stun

Raytheon, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is also testing numerous "non-lethal" weapons for military use, with funding from the National Institute of Justice. According to FOIA documents obtained by the U.S. Sunshine Project, Raytheon's Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs) fire a laser burst of expanding plasma--a collection of charged particles containing equal parts positive ions and electrons. (In science fiction terms, this could best be described as a "raygun.")

PEPs can be used from as far as two kilometers away, and are designed to create severe and debilitating pain resulting in temporary paralysis. Of particular concern is the fact that PEPs, apparently ready for use as early as 2007, are being investigated for use against "rioters," according to the British science magazine New Scientist.

And an Anderson, Ind.-based company, Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), is marketing their Close Quarters Shock Rifle to the military. The Shock Rifle projects plasma toward a target, and can be used for shutting down the ignition systems of vehicles, as well as for crowd control.

According to a New Scientist interview with XADS president Peter Bitar, the weapon can fire "a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep." An even more advanced form of the weapon may have a range of more than 300 feet. New Scientist noted that this version would utilize a tabletop-sized laser to produce an intense pulse that would ionize the air itself. The process would produce "long, thread-like filaments of glowing plasma that [could] be sustained by repeating the pulse every few milliseconds." The effect would be one of a shock similar to that of one of Taser's 50,000-volt stun guns.

That burning sensation

Raytheon is also pursuing a microwave-technology-based weapon, named the Active Denial System (ADS), which fires a 95-gigahertz beam at its targets. Thus far, what is known about ADS is that people hit by the weapon's beam experience a sharp rise in body heat and severe pain within five seconds of contact, an experience that is supposed to prompt targets to run in the other direction. A vehicle-mounted version of the weapon is already being designed for use in Iraq, while other portable versions are being designed for both U.S. Marine Corps and domestic law enforcement use.

A 2005 Reuters article noted that tests of the weapon have taken place at the Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque, N.M. As a part of those tests, researchers first made sure that participants removed all glasses, contact lenses and metal objects like keys, to prevent serious injury--of course, the conditions of real-world use are less controlled.

"How do you ensure that the dose doesn't cross the threshold for permanent damage?" asked Neil Davison, coordinator of the non-lethal weapons research project at Britain's Bradford University, in the Reuters article. Notably, one controlled test in New Mexico has already resulted in serious injury to a test subject, apparently after a higher-than-normal ADS power level setting was used.

Not so harmless

"Non-lethal" is still the operative term with all of these new weapons, but civilian experience with Taser stun guns shows that "non-lethal" means "usually not lethal." Since 2001, roughly 200 people have died after being stunned with Tasers. Taser International, Inc., attributes all of the deaths to other causes, including acute intoxication and "excited delirium." The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation to review some of those deaths.

The rapid evolution of electricity-based weaponry raises concerns for abuse by governments and law enforcement agencies that have already demonstrated a propensity to use electrical shock weaponry as a form of torture.

During a March 2005 debate with Taser CEO Rick Smith, Amnesty International USA's William Schulz pointed out that "stun technology in general is one of the most widely used instruments of torture around the world."

Human rights advocates everywhere should bear that in mind. The new wave of shock technology isn't just around the corner--it's already here.

Thanks to the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund for research support.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times. Her work appears in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).

 
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