Article — From the March 2010 issue

The Soft-Kill Solution

New frontiers in pain compliance

Not long ago, viewers of CBS’s 60 Minutes were treated to an intriguing bit of political theater when, in a story called “The Pentagon’s Ray Gun,” a crowd of what seemed to be angry protesters confronted a Humvee with a sinister-looking dish antenna on its roof. Waving placards that read world peace, love for all, peace not war, and, oddly, hug me, the crowd, in reality, was made up of U.S. soldiers playacting for the camera at a military base in Georgia. Shouting “Go home!” they threw what looked like tennis balls at uniformed comrades, “creating a scenario soldiers might encounter in Iraq,” explained correspondent David Martin: “angry protesters advancing on American troops, who have to choose between backing down or opening fire.” Fortunately — and this was the point of the story — there is now another option, demonstrated when the camera cut to the Humvee, where the “ray gun” operator was lining up the “protesters” in his crosshairs. Martin narrated: “He squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done.” World peace would have to wait.

Illistrated by Richard Mia

Illustrated by Richard Mia

The story was in essence a twelve-minute Pentagon infomercial. What the “protesters” had come up against was the Active Denial System, a weapon, we were told, that “could change the rules of war and save huge numbers of lives in Iraq.” Active denial works like a giant, open-air microwave oven, using a beam of electromagnetic radiation to heat the skin of its targets to 130 degrees and force anyone in its path to flee in pain — but without injury, officials insist, making it one of the few weapons in military history to be promoted as harmless to its targets. The Pentagon claims that 11,000 tests on humans have resulted in but two cases of second-degree burns, a “safety” record that has put active denial at the forefront of an international arms-development effort involving an astonishing range of technologies: electrical weapons that shock and stun; laser weapons that cause dizziness or temporary blindness; acoustic weapons that deafen and nauseate; chemical weapons that irritate, incapacitate, or sedate; projectile weapons that knock down, bruise, and disable; and an assortment of nets, foams, and sprays that obstruct or immobilize. “Non-lethal” is the Pentagon’s approved term for these weapons, but their manufacturers also use the terms “soft kill,” “less-lethal,” “limited effects,” “low collateral damage,” and “compliance.” The weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.1

1 In addition to such well-known non-lethal technologies as rubber bullets, pepper spray, and Tasers, researchers are investigating many other, more exotic approaches to crowd control: the LED Incapacitator, or “puke ray,” which uses pulsating multicolored lights to produce vertigo and nausea; MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio), which uses a beam of microwaves to induce uncomfortable auditory sensations in the skull; and the Pulsed Energy Projectile, which uses a burst of infrared laser energy to create a “plasma pulse” around the target, overwhelming his or her nervous system.

That race began in the Sixties, when the rise of television introduced a new political dynamic to the exercise of state violence best encapsulated by the popular slogan “The whole world is watching.” As communications advances in the years since have increasingly exposed such violence, governments have realized that the public’s perception of injury and bloodshed must be carefully managed. “Even the lawful application of force can be misrepresented to or misunderstood by the public,” warns a 1997 joint report from the Pentagon and the Justice Department. “More than ever, the police and the military must be highly discreet when applying force.”

It is a need for discretion rooted in one of the oldest fears of the ruling class — the volatility of the mob — and speaks to rising anxieties about crowd control at a time when global capitalism begins to run up against long-predicted limits to growth. Each year, some 76 million people join our current 6.7 billion in a world of looming resource scarcities, ecological collapse, and glaring inequalities of wealth; and elites are preparing to defend their power and profits. In this new era of triage, as democratic institutions and social safety nets are increasingly considered dispensable luxuries, the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting full-fledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call “the political utility of force,” allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously.

As outlined in many documents, some of them only recently declassified, U.S. policymakers have long understood themselves to be engaged in an active arms race with protesters both at home and abroad, and have viewed the acquisition of new crowd-control technology as a significant research goal. When the leveling power of mass communications has increased the ability of protesters to achieve concrete political gains, the Pentagon and federal law-enforcement agencies have responded by developing more media-friendly systems of control. Now, under cover of the “war on terror,” the deployment of these systems on the home front has dramatically escalated, an omen of a new phase in the ongoing class conflict.

Indeed, as already deteriorating economic conditions in the United States took a sharp turn for the worse in September 2008, the Army Times reported that the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team was being redeployed from Iraq to the “homeland” with what one colonel called the “first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded,” and that “they may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control.” By 2011, according to Defense Department officials, 20,000 active-duty troops will be assigned to help state and local authorities respond to domestic crises. Since the Great Panic of the 1870s, Americans have taken to the streets to demand greater democracy approximately every thirty years — during the Progressive Era, the Depression, and the Sixties. Perhaps the Pentagon feels we’re overdue.

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is a writer living in Brooklyn. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Owning the Weather,” appeared in the January 2006 issue.

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  • Guest

    Great work.

  • 5string

    The writer teaches English at Pace University and considers “seconddegree” to be a proper word?

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      This was, of course, a formatting error, and was correct in the article as it appeared in the magazine. Thank you for pointing it out.

  • nick quinlan

    Excellent article Ando! Very disturbing though

  • DEWtarget05

    My name is Darren M. and I believe I am being targeted with concentrated infrasonic sound waves while I attempt to sleep. I believe I am being targeted for D.E.W. (directed energy weapon) experimentation/harassment purposes by an entity within the U.S. government employing private contractors to carry out this experimentation/harassment. I believe they are performing this experimentation in order to refine the use of these weapons for future undetected use on targets such as activists, journalists, and other people deemed as threats.

    I am awakened many times throughout my sleep periods to a feeling of vibrations traveling through my body in a straight line. The vibrations are focused in a narrow beam. It is impossible for me to stay asleep when I am targeted with these inaudible concentrated sound waves which increase my pulse rate as they travel through me. Different parts of my body are targeted at different times. When my head is targeted I will awake with moderate to severe headaches. I believe the infrasonic sound waves have a concussion effect on my brain tissue. I have also experienced head spins to the point that I had to lift my head up out of a lying down position to make them stop. When my chest area is targeted, I will awake with rapid or irregular heartbeats. From my personal observations, I believe a heart attack could be induced in a weakened individual (heart disease, etc) while he/she slept. In addition, I experience sleep deprivation on a daily basis due to the repeated forced awakenings. The private contractors that target me hit me every 1-2 hours on average during the first part of my sleep period, and they increase the frequency of their targeting to every 15-30 minutes during the 2nd part of my sleep period. I fear that I will lose my job and become homeless due to the sleep deprivation that this experimentation/harassment has caused me. I also fear that my health will deteriorate.

    I want to make sure that my story is told in the event this
    experimentation/torture causes my premature death. I also want to make sure that potential future victims do not suffer the way I have from these silent sound wave weapons. I don’t believe anyone can help me because of my failed attempts to provide proof of this experimentation and the apparent disbelief and disinterest of the authorities in the U.S.

    Darren M.
    dewtarget05 AT
    yahoo DOT com
    716-541-7062

  • laughing tyger

    People need to be marching on the POLITICIANS who created this mess. Police are only doing what the Law tells them to do _ and GUESS WHAT??? They HATE Politicians. Yeah, they really do. POLITICIANS create our educational system and DEEPLY affect out Economic Reality. GO FOR THE TRUE TARGET FOLKS!!!

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