Good-bye nasty tear gas. So long risky rubber bullets. Welcome to the wonderful world of electromagnetic weaponry.
Last month the P.R.-conscious Pentagon proudly unveiled what is supposed to be the perfect nonlethal crowd control device a high-powered energy beam that can disperse an unruly mob without killing, maiming, or harming anyone.
Military brass are touting it as the biggest breakthrough in war technology since the nuclear bomb.
Known officially as a "Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System," this new weapon is said to be more humane and more effective than other methods of controlling a large crowd or stopping aggressive intruders dead in their tracks.
Here's how it works. A special transmitter fires two-second bursts of focused microwave energy that causes burning sensations on the skin of people up to 700 yards away. But no one gets fried and no telltale burn marks linger on the body because the beam only penetrates just beneath the skin's surface at a depth of 1/64th of an inch. Targets of this concentrated electromagnetic pulse briefly experience intense pain and confusion, prompting them to leave the area in hurry.
"It's safe, absolutely safe. You walk out of the beam and the pain goes away. There are no lasting effects," said Colonel George Fenton, who demonstrated the new gadget last month at the Pentagon's nonlethal weapons center in Quantico, Virginia.
The actual zapper, which looks something like a backyard satellite dish mounted on top of an armored car, is still in the experimental phase. Handheld and aircraft-mounted applications are also on the drawing board.
Thus far, ten years of research and $40 million have been devoted to this project, which critics have likened to a militarized version of a microwave oven. Developed by the Raytheon Corporation and several other Defense Department contractors, it is currently being field-tested on soldiers at the Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico. But it is not expected to be ready for deployment by troops for at least five years.
Zap-happy Pentagon strategists envision using the "Active Denial System" in various operational settings where a small number of American troops or military police might be confronted by a horde of angry civilians. Border patrols, "peacekeeping" missions, urban riots, and domestic disturbances have been flagged as situations in which such a device could prove handy. Best of all, it won't result in bloody television images of people shot and mutilated by conventional arms.
But before you start feeling warm and fuzzy all over at the prospect of a benign alternative to guns and bombs, consider the fact that past attempts by the U.S. military to create so-called nonlethal weapons have resulted in some monumental fiascos.
During the late 1950s Major General William Creasy, chief officer of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, waxed enthusiastic about a new kind of "psychochemical" weapon that would revolutionize combat. He imagined aircraft swooping down over enemy territory, releasing clouds of hallucinogenic "madness gas" that would disorient people and dissolve their will to resist. According to Creasy, a nonlethal incapacitating agent such as LSD could subdue a foe without inflicting permanent injury.
Testifying before Congress, Creasy maintained that psychochemical warfare was not only feasible but tactically advantageous for certain difficult operations, such as dislodging enemy soldiers from a city inhabited by an otherwise friendly population a busy industrial center, for example, with numerous museums and cultural landmarks. Why blow everything to smithereens with an old-fashioned artillery barrage if you can spike the city's water supply with LSD or disseminate an aerosol hallucinogen? Those under the spell of madness gas would become helplessly giddy, spaced-out, and incapable of fighting back while U.S. troops established themselves on once-forbidden turf. Victory would be a foregone conclusion. Just blow their minds, move in, and take over.
But Creasy's glowing predictions of "war without death" ran into a few technical glitches. For starters, it was impossible to discharge LSD in aerosol form. So the military-industrial surrealists concocted a more potent mind-bending drug known as BZ, which became part of the U.S. Army's chemical warfare arsenal in the early 1960s. Superhallucinogenic BZ gas was employed as a counterinsurgency weapon on a limited basis during the Vietnam war. The army eventually concluded that shifting wind patterns, BZ's tendency to trigger maniacal behavior, and the difficulties of controlling the amount of BZ absorbed during combat undermined its usefulness as a nonlethal incapacitant. An overdose of BZ could be fatal.
This, however, did not stop the CIA from fiddling with several BZ-related substances as part of its ongoing R&D program geared toward behavior modification and mind control techniques. A CIA memo dated September 4, 1970, emphasized the importance BZ-type weapons for crowd control: "Trends in modern police action and warfare indicate the desire to incapacitate reversibly and demoralize, rather than kill, the enemy. . . . With the advent of highly potent natural products, psychotropic and immobilizing drugs, a new era of law enforcement. . . is being ushered in."
U.S. army documents indicate that BZ was seriously considered for domestic riot control purposes. One harebrained scheme involved the use of tiny remote-controlled model airplanes nicknamed "mechanical bees." Mounted with hypodermic syringes, the bees would be aimed at selected protesters during political demonstrations to render them senseless. Another plan called for spraying BZ gas to incapacitate disorderly civilians.
Today's proponents of electromagnetic crowd control techniques invoke essentially the same argument that psychochemical warfare boosters used in the 1950s: Would you rather be zapped or dosed by a nonlethal device or shot to death by conventional firepower? The problem with this line of reasoning is that so-called nonlethal weapons often turn out to be deadly. (Pepper spray, which is supposedly nonlethal, has been implicated in more than 100 deaths.)
Moreover U.S. commanders, in the military literature, indicate that incapacitating agents are not meant as a substitute for guns, but as an addition to lethal ordnance.
Despite assurances by military officers, there are serious unresolved questions about the safety of microwave weapons. What happens, for example, if someone falls down while they are trying to run away from the electromagnetic pulse?
Some scientists warn that the much-ballyhooed "Active Denial System," when used at close range, could cook a person's eyeballs. Cataracts and cancer are among the possible long-term negative health effects of this kind of device, according to researchers at the Loma Linda University medical center.
The Pentagon insists that there's nothing to worry about. In over 6,500 tests on 72 individuals, only one exposure went awry, resulting in a nickel-sized burn on a person's back. But findings from a study of the long-term impact of the people zapper have yet to be disclosed publicly, according to a report in the Marine Corps Times, and "the amount of time the weapon must be trained on an individual to cause damage or death" remains classified.
Martin A. Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book on neofascism. His column, Reality Bites, appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian every Monday.
Copyright 2001 San Francisco Bay Guardian