The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Set Phaser to Torment

March 5, 2008

The Pentagon’s “less-than-lethal” weaponry is finally going mainstream. Though the Active Denial System (ADS) has been under development for years, 60 Minutes has finally reported on it as if it’s the newest thing around. (Click here to see the 10-minute segment from Sunday’s show.)

Not exactly a hand-held phaser, and it doesn’t painlessly knock you out. Instead it sends a wave of directed energy at a person or a crowd that vibrates the water molecules under the skin. This induces a feeling of being on fire. But unlike actual flamethrowers, the pain only lasts until you move out of the beam.

Pentagon officials frame this as a humanitarian weapon that will save lives by giving US troops something to blaze away with other than a gun. They particularly tout its use for riot control, an easy way to disperse crowds in stability and support ops.

Opponents have some concerns. Quoth various commenters on Crooks and Liars:

“So when we have 2 groups of demonstators facing off against each other, which group will be zapped? The side that agrees with the current administration or the side that opposes it? This looks like a potentially serious threat to free speech.”

“So the military is basically afraid of it’s own people is the moral of this story. The weapon won’t be used in REAL battles, but when it comes to protesters/crowd control it’s ok. So when does the US military officially take over complete control of the US in the form of a advertised coup?”

“A weapon like this is a clear infringement of our Constitutional rights to peacefully assemble for a redress of our grievances. It is unconstitutional. Period.”

A “humane” weapon? Frankly I think I’d rather be burnt to death in a space of three minutes than stuck in a “non-lethal” agonizer ray indefinitely, as might happen if I’m a small child being trampled in a panicked crowd. Although as a matter of fact, being basically a microwave beam, more likely it would eventually cook that small child inside out and kill her anyway.

Perhaps revisiting of the basic just war principles of discrimination, proportionality and unnecessary suffering might be in order here.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.