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The list of available LLWs is growing. For denying access to large areas, the military now has a “mobile barrier foam system” that can spread a meter of foam containing tear gas over an area of 400 square meters. It would not stop a trained military force, but it would certainly deter most civilians. “Sticky foam” is a material shot out of a high-pressure gun system that can be carried by a single soldier. It slimes the victim with a tacky material that makes it hard to move; it has been called a “high-tech lasso,” although it is more analogous to the ancient gladiator’s net. Microwave weapons can remotely deliver a painful (but supposedly harmless) burning sensation on the skin. Long-range nonlinear acoustic devices overcome the normal atmospheric diffraction of sound to direct a narrow beam at a target; I saw one demonstrated last year. This sound can confuse and disorient individuals and groups.

Ironically, the strongest argument against these weapons is that they are not terrible enough, and therefore the military (or the police) are more likely to use them. And-the argument goes-using them frequently will often cause more harm than if the weapons were not available. This is a recapitulation of the weapons paradox, which I wrote about last year.

Truly nonlethal weapons do not exist. When the Lone Ranger whacked a bad man on the skull with the butt of his gun, most viewers assumed (incorrectly) that it causes no more than a few minutes of healthy unconsciousness. In reality, such a blow often results in concussion and sometimes in death. It is a tricky business to disable without killing.

In October 2002, Russians used a supposedly nonlethal gas (identified by them as the opiate fentanyl) to subdue terrorists in a Moscow theater, but in the process they killed 117 of about 800 hostages. An expert doctor, in a hospital facility, can apply an anesthesia with fair reliability. To do it safely at a distance is impossible. What were once called “nonlethal weapons” were renamed “less than lethal” weapons, and now the preferred and more accurate terminology is “less lethal.” 

There are other concerns about LLWs. According to Amnesty International, some governments use tasers for torture and to extract confessions from political prisoners. Some LLWs already are outlawed by treaty. The United States ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits us from using tear gas in war. (Interestingly, under this treaty, tear gas can still be used for police action against civilians, both at home and in foreign countries.)

In December 2003, police in Oakland, CA, used dowel guns to break up a demonstration on the docks, leading to serious injuries (you can see photos of the results here). Supporters say that the use of such weapons put a quick end to an illegal demonstration. Critics say that the availability of the LLWs led to substantially greater injury than otherwise.

Robert E. Lee said, “It is good that war is so terrible: we should grow too fond of it.” Will LLWs make war less terrible, and therefore more likely? Or will they permit us, in essence, to simply shoot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys, and at least open the possibility of winning over the hearts of the children? These outcomes don’t conflict; they can happen together. Our challenge is to make the right mix so the balance will be one we’ll be proud of.

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