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December 08, 2006

Separating Tourists From Terrorists

The crowd is getting ugly. Soldiers roll up in a Hummer. Suddenly, the whole right half of your body is screaming in agony. You feel like you've been dipped in molten lava. You almost faint from shock and pain, but instead you stumble backwards -- and then start running. To your surprise, everyone else is running too. In a few seconds, the street is completely empty.

You've just been hit with a new nonlethal weapon that has been certified for use in Iraq -- even though critics argue there may be unforseen effects.

And so begins the article from Wired.com documenting the U.S. Air Force's approval of the Active Denial System (ADS), which shoots a beam of millimeter waves causing limited radiation, its wavelength somewhere between those of x-rays and microwaves. It has been developed for military purposes of crowd-control. Eye damage and cancer are just two of the health concerns raised about this weapon.

The military has been testing the ADS technology for the past 10 years, at a cost of $40 million, and claims that, if used properly, it will produce no lasting adverse effects. The unquantifiable factor is whether or not the same use will have the same results in each case. During the Vietnam War, police in Berkeley, CA often shot at protestors with rubber bullets thought to be "safe if used properly", but rubber bullets hitting someone in the head could, and did, cause death. Today, our nation's police forces routinely shoot taser guns, also deemed "safe if used properly", to rein in uncooperative suspects. It takes no more than a Google search to find that tasers have, on occasion, seriously injured some individuals, and in at least one case resulted in a death.

The ADS was tested on unpaid military personnel and the military claims that, of more than 10,000 exposures, there were six cases of blistering and one of second-degree burns. But considering that the system was developed -- and the tests conducted -- with such secrecy, it may be a bit of a stretch for the public to trust those claims coming from the same military command that approved the use of certain "coercive interrogation techniques"  for prisoners at Abu Graib.

The ADS technology is ready to deploy, and the Army requested ADS-armed Strykers for Iraq last year. But the military is well aware that any adverse publicity could finish the program, and it does not want to risk distressed victims wailing about evil new weapons on CNN.


The development of a truly safe and highly effective nonlethal crowd-control system could raise enormous ethical questions about the state's use of coercive force. If a method such as ADS leads to no lasting injury or harm, authorities may find easier justifications for employing them.

Posted by shoephone on December 8, 2006 at 09:52 AM in National and International Politics | Permalink


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