'Non-Lethal' Weapons

The development of military hardware that does not kill is proving elusive, as Russell Brown discovers

November 12, 2009

Star Trek devotees will recall Captain Kirk's frequent order to "set phasers to stun" (as opposed to kill). Most viewers doubtless admired his preference for non-lethality and hoped that real-world technology would someday accommodate it. There seems, after all, an innately humane quality to a weapon that incapacitates without causing death or permanent injury. Instead of killing, we temporarily immobilise, tranquillise, blind or deafen. O brave new world!

Underlying this simplistic (if noble) conjecture about harmless force is, however, a complex intersection of technological and ethical problems, ably illuminated in Neil Davison's 'Non-Lethal' Weapons. Beyond canvassing such conundrums, this exhaustively researched book integrates complex and diffuse information into an accessible, coherent and chronological narrative of non-lethal weapons development.

It begins with police efforts to combat public demonstrations in the 1960s. Then, moved by the 1993 Waco debacle and post-Cold War re-evaluation of security issues, the Clinton Administration pursued efforts to develop non-lethal weaponry for the police and the military. This dual use is itself troubling. While policing imperatives include reducing death from the use of force, military planners evidently see non-lethal weapons as adjuncts, augmenting lethal weaponry. (Think, for example, of Russia's deployment of fentanyl during the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, which facilitated the execution of the sedated hostage-takers.) Militarily useful technological advances in non-lethal weaponry have, however, been rare. Indeed, Davison notes that the development of "non-lethal" technology has failed so miserably that it has led to the emergence of a whole new class of lethal weaponry. Thus, while a non-lethal chemical or biological weapon (with a sufficient margin between temporary incapacitation and permanent damage or killing) has proven elusive, sufficient interest and funding for research and development subsists, with the resulting risk of widespread proliferation of lethal forms of such weaponry.

Directed energy weapons (lasers and radio frequencies of microwave or millimetre wave beams) similarly pose risk of death or (in the case of lasers) permanent damage. Acoustic weapons research has also failed to achieve reversible incapacitating effects. (In fact, loudspeakers remain among the more reliable forms of acoustic, non-lethal weapons - which suggests that things have progressed little since US forces blared out the dulcet ballads of AC/DC while attempting to extract ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from his shelter in the Vatican's Apostolic Nunciature, Panama City, in 1989.) All this, Davison, a senior policy adviser at the Royal Society's Science Policy Centre and leading authority on non-lethal weapons, documents thoroughly. He even treats us to the latest aspirations of non-lethal weapons developers, ranging from malodorants to chemicals that make non-lethal marks on human behaviour. One military lab report actually speculated on the feasibility of developing an aphrodisiac that would promote homosexuality, thereby demoralising enemy forces.

The major consumers of non-lethal weapons technology, however, have been police, and this goes to Davison's most relevant insight, at least for Western democracies. While he canvasses obvious challenges posed by non-lethal weapons to positive law (particularly those relating to international weapons conventions), a substantial normative legal implication of the use of non-lethal technology is also explored. Regular use by police of non-lethal weapons (particularly the Taser) has lowered the threshold for their use from an alternative to lethal force to an alternative to mere non-compliance. While the promise of a militarily useful alternative to lethality has so far proven illusory, the emergence of weaponry that facilitates police violence is now palpable, thereby implicating the most basic norms of the Rule of Law.

'Non-Lethal' Weapons

By Neil Davison
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN 9780230221062 Published 17 June 2009

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