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Weapons of Mass Compliance 

Now at a tech lab near you, agony-inducing tools that will control your disorderly tendencies and blast those riotous urges

Thursday, Jul 3 2003
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Illustration by Juan Alvarado

Firing indiscriminately on unarmed crowds of civilians, long a staple method of restoring order, is today almost universally frowned upon. Maybe we have the Internet or the low price of video cameras to thank for this, one of the few identifiable advances in humanity over recent decades. But the New World Order has its discontents. Police and military alike face new challenges not only from the usual terrorist suspects, but from all manner of uppity civilians the world over, from at-times unruly displays of democratic zeal at protests in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, Quebec City, Prague, Genoa and a grab bag of other Western cities, to occasional bits of ugliness in the dingier corners of the globe when the ungrateful subjects of American military “humanitarian” missions rudely snap at the hands that feed them. The primary challenge for a more media-savvy police state: to make people calm and compliant without actually making them dead.

Engineers, hard at work for years now on this problem, have come up with some creative solutions, fun gadgets that give the banalities of police work a little Flash Gordon–cum–Robocop sheen. Spurred in part by some embarrassing scenes in Somalia, the Department of Defense in 1997 established the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), with an annual budget of about $25 million, to research toys that might hurt a lot but would — ostensibly at least — stop short of killing you. The high-tech defense industry, much of it just a couple of hours’ drive down Interstate 5 from Los Angeles, has responded with predictable enthusiasm and ingenuity, and will likely get a boost of legitimacy from a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report released earlier this year, urging greater federal funding for non-lethal weapons research and evaluation.

Most of this research goes on far away from the public eye, through a network of universities (Penn State, for instance, runs an Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies), military labs and tech-world entrepreneurial ventures that parallels and at times gruesomely parodies the rest of the technology sector. One weapon, though, the gracelessly named VMADS, created a small media flurry when the Pentagon formally unveiled it in March. Short for Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System (presumably because it actively denies people the possibility of not being in pain), it’s sort of like a microwave oven gone seriously bad. Bolted to a Humvee, it can disperse stubborn crowds by beaming millimeter-waves of radio-frequency energy, thus “stimulating the pain receptors but not inducing permanent damage.” Cross your fingers. The Pentagon has spent $40 million on the VMADS’s development, but according to the NAS report, next to nothing is known about the actual short- or long-term effects of zapping people with the thing.

Equally sci-fi scary is a weapon being developed by HSV Technologies in San Diego; it’s a high-powered ultraviolet laser that ionizes channels of air, along which an electric current can then be passed, effectively creating invisible live wires wherever it’s aimed. A blast at the ray gun’s lowest setting, its inventor told the Defense News newsletter, “would cause a person’s [skeletal] muscles to contract, effectively freezing him in place.”

Jaycor, an all-purpose crowd-control technology firm, also based in San Diego, manufactures a somewhat sloppier variation on the same theme: a demonically overgrown water gun that, according to the company’s Web site, “can deliver electric shocks to individuals at ranges up to 25 feet without conductive wires.” (Also on the Web site: photos of riot-geared cops advancing on cringing protesters and boasts that Jaycor’s “PepperBall™ launchers and projectiles were used by the Seattle Police Department to control the World Trade Organization protest riots in 1999.”) Jaycor’s “liquid stun gun,” or “wireless stun gun,” can be used, the Web site says, “in conjunction with a vehicle-mounted water cannon” to clear crowds fast; it shoots “an electrified conductive fluid . . . delivering debilitating but not lethal shocks.”

Jaycor is also marketing something called the Sticky Shocker, a nastily barbed projectile “designed to partially penetrate thick clothing or leather” (and presumably bare skin), which, fired from a grenade launcher, proceeds to “impart a short burst of high-voltage pulses,” incapacitating whomever it’s stuck to. The JNLWD’s Human Effects Advisory Panel, which goes by the astonishingly well-chosen acronym HEAP, studied the two physical effects of the Sticky Shocker, “blunt impact and electrical insult.” Both, the HEAP determined, can cause death. The Jaycor Web site nonetheless proudly declares that “Sticky Shocker® is as safe as other non-lethal weapons in present use,” which is very likely true.

Other high-tech firms have been banking on sound as the agony-inducing agent of choice. Properly manipulated, ultrasonic signals, according to the NAS, can cause “pain, [the] presence of irritating/aggravating noise, or the production of uncomfortable internal organ conditions.” Hence, in addition to its line of sub-woofers and consumer audio products, the American Technology Corp., also based in San Diego, has come up with something called the Directed Stick Radiator, a battery-operated magic wand of sorts “that uses a high intensity acoustic pressure wave to disorient and disable targeted individuals up to 100 yards away.” Likewise, Scientific Applications & Research Associates of Cypress has developed a “sonic firehose” designed for use against disorderly crowds, which it can knock to the ground and otherwise annoy with a “supersonic vortex of air.” The problem, the NAS laments, is that “although repeated attempts have been made to develop high-intensity sound generators capable of eliciting desired results,” they still can make people irreversibly deaf.

There is more, much more. There are remote-controlled “marsupial robots,” built in San Diego for the Navy, which can fire 10 to 12 non-lethal rounds per second. There are “sticky foams” that can be sprayed on crowds to disgust and confuse them and make it very hard for them to move around. Like fun foam without the fun, colored dyes, skin irritants and foul-smelling chemicals can be added to make the experience still more unpleasant. “When sticky, black, odorous foam is discharged onto a target,” one manufacturer declares, “the response should be compliance and/or quick exit.” In likely contravention of anti-chemical-and-biological-weapons treaties (the Pentagon has a rather loose interpretation of these things), the military is working to develop microbes that eat asphalt and metal and turn petroleum to useless goo, and to perfect airborne delivery systems of so-called “calmatives” — aerosol versions of Valium, Prozac and powerful opiates like Fentanyl — just in case all the blunt trauma, microwave menace, and acoustic and electrical insult should fail to keep the populace sufficiently tranquil.

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