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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October 2019