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Sunday, July 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The insidious truth about 'Non-Lethal' Weapons

Special to The Times

As we enter the era of urban warfare and homeland terrorism, the front lines have moved from remote jungles and deserts to densely populated areas such as cities and towns.

Faced with the prospect of widespread civilian casualties, militaries around the world have been researching and developing weapons that could significantly reduce the risk to ordinary citizens and civil infrastructure.

In theory, these so-called "non-lethal" weapons sound like a great idea. Why level an entire downtown when you're looking for a few specific targets? Why use explosives when tear gas or sound waves that induce nausea might work just as well?

Once you do a bit of research, however, the idea no longer seems so innocuous. Not only can "non-lethal" weaponry be just as deadly as traditional weapons, the psychology behind them can be insidious.

Don't believe me? Then join me on a brief tour of the non-lethal weapons arsenal. And keep in mind: These are real-life examples drawn from the Department of Defense's non-lethal program, and from "Non-lethal Weapons: Terms and References," a report by the United States Air Force Institute for National Security Studies. The research center published the report in 1997; excerpts ran in Harper's earlier this year.

Acoustic Weapons

These are high-powered, very low-frequency waves (VLFs) that emanate from antenna dishes, inducing blunt-force trauma.

"Effects range from discomfort to death," according to the institute report.

You didn't realize "death" was part of the "non-lethal" description, did you?

Then there is infrasound — very low-frequency sound that can lead to a number of adverse biological effects such as "nausea, loss of bowels, disorientation, vomiting, potential internal organ damage," and once again, "death."

All this makes a weird sort of sense if you consider that "peacekeepers" and "friendly fire" can kill.

We have fully entered the era of doublespeak that George Orwell warned us about over 50 years ago. We numb ourselves to the reality of our actions with euphemisms, and we intentionally manipulate language to pretend that everything we do is for the good of humanity, rather than acknowledging that sometimes we're doing it for higher profits or more power.

Even though it may sound relatively harmless, "non-lethal" will in many cases be a euphemism for a violent act of aggression that could lead to serious injury or death. As the famous saying goes, would you rather deal with the lion that tells you he's going to eat you, or the fox that lies about it?

Optical/Visual Weapons

Let's move on to the next stop: weapons that affect vision in some manner.

Lasers: Lasers that are designed to permanently blind won't be considered here, since they were banned back in 1980. The focus instead is on lasers that temporarily blind an opponent, or could be used to control a rowdy crowd. They are touted by their manufacturers as being "safe as the sun."

Problem is, if you stare into the sun too long you will go blind.

I know of no safeguards to prevent these weapons from being directed at a target for an extended period of time. Who's to say they won't be?

Photic driver: This, according to the institute's report, is a "crowd-control device... which uses ultrasound and flashing infrared lights which penetrate closed human eyelids," potentially leading to epileptic seizures.

Do you remember the incident in Japan a few years ago, where an episode of "Pokémon" sent hundreds of Japanese children to the hospital with epileptic symptoms? The photic driver works off of the same principle — using a combination of bright, flashing colors to induce disorientation and possible seizures — except that it's far more powerful, and most disturbing of all, it's intentional.

Let's hope television isn't considered as the next non-lethal weapon.

Colored smoke: In many ways, this is the strangest of all the weapons. Not because of its properties, which are pretty basic — essentially a giant Fourth of July smoke bomb that obscures, disorients and creates panic — but because of the psychology surrounding it.

The institute's report states that different races react differently to different colors: "Caucasians" apparently have "a greater repugnance to brilliant green smoke," associated with personal discomfort such as seasickness, while "Negroids" and "Latins" — I'm not making this up — are said to be "most adversely affected by brilliant red."

So, whom will non-lethal weapons most likely be directed against, and for what duration?

Is it possible that certain races or cultures will be targeted over others?

And, if non-lethal weapons are used often to detain or capture suspects, will there be equal justice for those who are detained?

It's entirely possible that even if a non-lethal weapon is non-lethal and only incapacitates someone, a death sentence could await that person when he or she wakes up. Once again, a non-lethal weapon would find a way to be lethal.

Chemical Weapons

Sticky foam: Let's begin with this "polymer-based superadhesive agent" that is "extremely persistent and is virtually impossible to remove without a liquid solvent," according to the Air Force institute's report. You'll recall that sticky foam was used in Somalia during Operation United Shield, but there were problems with its usage because of the suffocation dangers it presented if it should cover a person's face.

Another thing to consider is the long-term effect of its use. Though the lasting impacts on humans are not yet known, sticky foam contains butadiene, a substance that has caused cancer in laboratory animals.

Hallucinogens: Often administered via gas, hallucinogenic weapons are employed to confuse, disorient and incapacitate the enemy, though last October's hostage fiasco in Russia — more than 90 dead after the police gassed a theater with BZ, an odorless incapacitant with hallucinogenic properties — shows that these weapons can be quite deadly when used improperly.

Biotechnical Weapons

Our final stop, biotechnical weapons, is arguably the most provocative, especially considering the "sci-fi" qualities of the weapons.

The neuro-implant, for instance: tiny computers that are implanted "into the brain" to "allow for behavioral modification and control," according to the institute's report.

The only way to use this weapon, currently experimental in nature, would be to surgically implant the device into a person's brain. But who would be the recipient of this operation, and for what purpose? Would it be used against potential terrorists to eliminate their destructive tendencies? Or against frequent protesters to subdue their rebellious nature?

There are huge ethical implications here. For those who appreciate the virtues of free thought, free speech and autonomy, this is an utterly terrible idea. Clearly, our current definitions of "non-lethal" are far too broad if they allow technologies as controversial as the neuro-implant to be included under that aegis.

Then there is genetic alteration: This technique involves "the act of changing genetic code" to create a "long-term disablement effect, perhaps for generations, thereby creating a societal burden," according to the Air Force institute's report.

Considering some of the psychology behind the colored smoke example, it's easy to let your imagination run wild: You could "gengineer" Iraqis to be more docile, create a "race-specific" virus to locate terrorists, or, if you're twisted enough, even develop a sexually transmitted disease to wipe out a continent's entire generation.

If genetic warfare could be protected under the banner of non-lethal weaponry — instead of being grouped with biological warfare where it belongs — who knows what else might be slipped in?

It is obvious there are some major ethical issues surrounding deployment of non-lethal technology.

It's not so simple as just a weapon that wounds you or a weapon that kills you. If law-enforcement agencies were only using tear gas or rubber bullets, that would be a whole different story.

But non-lethal weapons can kill you — perhaps slowly, if not immediately — and some can even affect your children and your unborn grandchildren.

That's a huge difference, and therefore, until measures are taken to ensure that non-lethal weapons are completely non-lethal — and devoid of any debilitating after-effects to you or your family — there should be a moratorium on their use, or at the very least a more stringent definition of the term "non-lethal."

If the thought of potentially blinding lasers being used on an American protester disturbs you, or if the notion of using genetic warfare in Liberia or Iraq gives you cause for concern, write your elected officials and let them know. Many of them are undoubtedly unaware of the dangers posed by non-lethal weapons.

And since this is not only a U.S. issue — all of the G8 countries use non-lethal weaponry — you should also consider writing to the United Nations, asking for a strict global definition of the term "non-lethal weapons" and a rigid protocol for their use and deployment.

We don't need another tragedy like the theater fiasco in Russia. It's time that non-lethal weapons lived up to their name.

E-mail Joshua Ortega at jnaortega@omegapp.com. His Web address is www.joshuaortega.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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