Don’t kill me

Can we trust new weapons that are supposed to be non-lethal?
July 3, 2009

Retired US colonel John B Alexander is unusual in his profession. He thinks that the best way to a peaceful world isn't deadly force, but new weapons designed to minimise permanent injury. Some are already common, from electronic control devices like the controversial Tasers—used by Britain's police to immobilise targets with electric shocks—to rubber bullets, chemical sprays and water cannons. But Alexander and other enthusiasts think the search for these weapons has just begun.

I met him in May on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany, at the 5th European Symposium on Non Lethal Weapons (NLWs). A handful of protestors held placards saying "against mind control." Alexander recounted that one of these "wavers"—people who believe they are targets of microwave beams—claimed to recognise him from a UFO encounter. "They're crazy paranoid," he explained.

No doubt, but when even the British Medical Association voices concern about the "militarisation of biology," it isn't just conspiracy theorists who worry about the darker side of NLWs. As Jonathan Moreno's Mind Wars (2006) details, military scientists are using advances in neuroscience—which shed light on the biochemical basis of much human behaviour—to design weapons. Ultimately, these could lead to the intentional manipulation of people's emotions, memories and immune responses.

The symposium saw discussions of new NLWs. Some use "directed energy" to induce pain with electromagnetic waves. Others will allow remote stimulation of the skeletal muscles, helpful for target immobilisation. There was also talk of exploiting the psychological impact of smelly substances for crowd control, a technique already used by the Israeli army. "A human being needs to be treated as an information processor," says Alan Ashworth, a neuroscientist working for the US air force. Any stimulus, he explains, produces a motor response and it should be possible to design weapons that produce the desired behavioural outcome.

Although NLWs have not yet been as popular in wars as early proponents had hoped, largely because of ambiguities in international law, their use in policing and crowd control is growing. (Taser International, for instance, enjoyed revenues of $92.8m in 2008.) And this is partly due to a shift towards crime control, where police seek pre-emptive techniques. The Mosquito is one example, a device emitting pulses of high frequency sound. Its buzz can be set in the 16kHz to 19kHz range, which can only be heard by younger people. Teenagers find the sound "irritating," says inventor Howard Stapleton (who can't hear it), although some describe it as painful. Compound Security Systems, the manufacturers, market it to deter antisocial youths outside shops or private residences.

Civil liberties campaigners have been mocked for criticising the Mosquito: "Why argue with a device that stops crime?" Peter Hitchens asked in the Mail on Sunday. But perhaps the real case against NLWs is that they aren't as non-lethal as they seem. In Moscow in 2002, Russian authorities ended the siege of a theatre that had been seized by Chechen terrorists by pumping in an aerosolised fentanyl derivative, a supposedly safe gas designed to incapacitate. Over 100 hostages died, with many more injured. Controversy over suspected deaths from Tasers didn't stop the home office from extending their use by police in December 2008, and the following June video footage of a man being shot twice with a Taser gun in Nottingham was passed to the police complaints body.

Proponents argue deaths attributed to NLWs are exaggerated, while the lives they save are ignored. But, in the absence of social and scientific consensus about their use, it remains a grey area. If Alexander and other enthusiasts get their way, the Mosquito could be just the first in a range of gadgets that have a much nastier sting.