From email@example.com Wed May 24 18:45:41 2000
Crowd-control cookery: Microwaves among new non-lethal weapons
By John Yaukey, Gannett News Service, [9 April 2000]
WASHINGTON - In Seattle, unruly demonstrators disrupting World Trade Organization talks clashed with police. Halfway around the world in Kosovo, U.S. peacekeepers faced stone-throwing mobs.
Gunfire as a response in either case would have been disastrous - and wasn't used.
Police and soldiers in both confrontations had at their disposal a new, and some say controversial, arsenal designed to sting, stun, entrap, immobilize, sicken, knock the wind out of - but not kill - the assailants, suspects, agitators or enemies they are used against.
They're referred to collectively as non-lethal weapons, and police and military units are increasingly using them as they try to limit the use of deadly force and successfully negotiate small urban conflicts.
In these skirmishes, subduing or dispersing a hostile force can be more effective than eliminating it, especially if it's virtually indistinguishable from non-hostiles, or mixed in with innocents, as was the case during the 1995 U.S. deployment to Somalia where bystanders were used by marauding clans as human shields.
Many of the nation's major urban police forces already use some of these weapons or are considering them, especially in the wake of high-profile cases where they have been accused of misusing deadly force.
Some weapons are secret
At its training ground in Quantico, Va., the Marine Corps conducts exercises with non-lethal weapons, some of them classified.
Non-lethal weapons range from the simple - modernized string-and-ball bolas used for centuries by South American cowboys to tangle the legs of wayward cattle - to highly technical, new devices that nauseate by shaking the internal organs with sound or mildly cooking them with microwaves.
"Americans have a strong aversion to fatalities," said Ron Madrid, a former Marine Corps officer who helped establish the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State University. "And that's going to drive the development and use of these devices."
Most of the research on non-lethals is being done by a Marine Corps-operated program with a $25 million annual budget, or by small companies looking to market new weapons, mainly to law enforcement.
So far, most of the non-lethal weapons in use consist of devices that deliver a blow, such as bean bags fired from shotguns, or an electrical shock, or a chemical irritant such as pepper spray.
While there is nothing terribly new about these methods, new delivery systems make them far more potent.
Pepper spray, for example, traditionally dispensed from a handheld aerosol dispenser, is now available to law enforcement in grenade form. The grenade breaks apart with a mild charge, scattering pellets that quickly release pepper spray in all directions.
Electroshock weapons that once required close contact with an assailant can now spit bits of metal up to 30 feet that stick and deliver a debilitating charge.
Some are scary
But it's what's in the R&D pipeline that's raising eyebrows.
At the Los Alamos National Laboratories, for example, scientists are developing lasers for temporarily blinding opponents. The prototype weapon emits a continuous visible light beam that has the same effects as an oncoming car's high beams - only some types can cause permanent blindness.
Special-forces units in Somalia in 1995 had considered using these, but decided the risk of permanent blindness was too high.
At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, scientists are experimenting with a modified shotgun that fires a charge of water and aluminum pellets, which can be selected to "stun, disable, or destroy" an enemy.
Even more advanced, and controversial, are a variety of megaphone-like devices that emit sound waves capable of knocking over an adversary. More advanced sonic weapons cause the adversary's internal organs to vibrate, inducing a crippling nausea and severe pain.
Some of the most exotic experiments entail harnessing microwaves, the very same used in microwave ovens, to induce almost instant fevers or seizures by heating the body to as much as 107 degrees.
Just as with a TV dinner, the microwaves, fired from a TV-dish-like instrument, cause water molecules in the body to vibrate faster than normal, which generates heat.
Why rights groups object
While many of these weapons are highly effective, they have also raised considerable concerns among some scientific organizations - as well as human-rights groups.
First, some of these groups say, there is no guarantee that non-lethal weapons are always non-lethal, and even non-lethal advocates concede that. Some technologies used under the wrong circumstances or without proper training could easily kill.
What's more, inducing effects such as permanent blindness is inconsistent with common international standards of humane treatment.
Many are being developed in secret and are not being tested to the satisfaction of rights groups.
"We are not against non-lethal weapons as a technology - you have to look at each technology and see what does or doesn't make sense," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human-rights organization. "But with some of these systems there clearly needs to be more testing on the effects than there is, and that information needs to be less secret than a lot of it is."
Approach could foster violence
And even within the military strategic and policy community, there is criticism that non-lethal force is, at best, only useful in highly specific situations such as where chaotic crowds can easily be dispersed or where there is no organized force prepared to retaliate with lethal force.
In some instances, they argue non-lethal force can be counterproductive.
"Are you going to actually encourage the violence you're intending to restrain because your adversary knows you're committed to a non-lethal approach?" said Steven Aftergood, a weapons policy analyst with the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "You may end up with more violence rather than less violence, and you could make the outbreak of conflict more, rather than less, likely."
But many police organizations and the military clearly believe this emerging, non-lethal technology has a place.
"Non-lethal weapons provide important options between doing too much and too little," said John Alexander, a former Green Beret and author of Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in 21st Century Warfare. "In Somalia we ended up killing . . . people, and our mission was to feed them."