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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The army's non-lethal imperialism (coming soon)

Today's news of the US military's demonstration of a relatively new heat beam weapon offers a lesson in the deceptive dangers that lurk behind so-called "less lethal" weapons and the pitfalls they conceal for progressives and other supporters of less lethal technology.

I have written about this before ("The rise of the global urban battlefield and the death of unregulated space","The Harold Hurtt Prize: The changing nature of power"), but I have generally discussed Tasers and the way police use them to augment their power to attack the working class. This is a very important point, although it is completely ignored by the press, because generally the argument goes that Tasers and other less lethal weapons represent progressive developments because they reduce the frequency and lethality of police violence.

It's worth noting that the core reasons behind police violence (capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, corruption, etc.) are never addressed in news articles on less lethal weapons. That the police must use violence to achieve their aims is taken as a given and the purpose or cause of that violence is never questioned.

However, readers of this blog will be aware that research shows that Tasers do not, in fact, reduce police acts of violence. Perhaps surprising at first, this point becomes obvious when we realize that Tasers are weapons, and more weapons in the hands of the police means more opportunities for the police to use force. And that's exactly what an Arizona Republic investigation into the use of Tasers found. From the 2004 article:
Officers used stun guns last year more than they used batons, chemical spray, physical force and firearms combined. Records show that the number of incidents in which police used some type of force went up 22 percent after Tasers were issued to all patrol officers. This happened while the use of every other weapon decreased.
Again, this shouldn't surprise us. After all, why else did Mexican authorities disarm dirty cops in Tijuana this week, replacing their sidearms with slingshots? If investigators in Mexico had followed the logic of the progressive defenders of the status quo argument about the alleged violence-reducing nature of less lethal weapons, we would have expected them to add slingshots to the cops' arsenal, not replace them, right? But, clearly adding another weapon to a cop's arsenal does nothing but increase her ability to project violence. If you want to reduce police violence, you have to reduce police weapons - and the number of police. That's simple.

So, it's with a healthy dose of skepticism that I read the news of the public demonstration of DOD's new Active Denial System. Costing $60 million dollars, developers hope to have it available for deployment across all services by 2010. The weapon blasts targets with a stream of microwaves that can penetrate clothing, causing a burning sensation "intense enough to make [the target] think their clothes [are] about to ignite."

In a Reuters article carried in the new Zealand Herald, Theodore Barna, an undersecretary of Defense gushed about the new technology: "This is a breakthrough technology that's going to give our forces a capability they don't now have."

True to form, the piece makes sure to point out that the device is safe.
Documents given out during the demonstration said more than 10,000 people had been exposed to the weapon since testing began more than 12 years ago. They said there had been no injuries requiring medical attention during the five-year advanced development programme.
So we needn't worry.

But, the point of the device isn't to reduce damage, although it may in fact do that. The point of the weapon is to increase the power of the military to defend itself and, in the grand scheme, to project capitalist and state power more efficiently.

It's important to remember that one thing these weapons do not change is the interest of the ruling class. And thus, there's nothing about weapons like the ADS that is progressive. In the AP article from the El Paso Times,
Airman Blaine Pernell, 22, of suburban New Orleans, said he could have used the system during his four tours in Iraq, where he manned watchtowers around a base near Kirkuk. He said Iraqis constantly pulled up and faked car problems so they could scout out U.S. forces.

''All we could do is watch them,'' he said. But if they had the ray gun, troops ''could have dispersed them.''
Indeed, the Herald reports:
The weapon, mounted on a Humvee, uses a large rectangular dish antenna to direct an invisible beam toward a target. It includes a high-voltage power unit and beam-generating equipment and is effective at more than 500 meters.

Existing counter-personnel systems designed not to kill -- including bean bag munitions and rubber bullets -- work at little more than "rock-throwing distances," said Marine Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

In increasingly complex military operations, the technology provided a much-needed alternative to just going from "shouting to shooting," said Hymes...

Variations of the system could help in peacetime and wartime missions, including crowd control and mob dispersal, checkpoint security and port protection, officials said. It could also help in conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's clear that the main advantage that the military hopes to derive from this weapon is flexibility, not a reduction in violence. Just as with Tasers, there is no reason to expect that this technology will, therefore, deliver the conditions for a reduction in violence.

Like it or not, Iraqi resistance is a challenge to US imperial designs on Iraq. One can say this without endorsing the overall politics of the Iraqi resistance or religious fundamentalism. However, it follows that increasing the ways that US troops can project their power in Iraq, as Airman Pernell suggests would be possible with these kinds of weapons, also increases the likelihood that the American elite will successfully impose its will on the region. There is nothing progressive about that (which ought to give supporters of the Democrats' complaints that Bush hasn't adequately equipped the troops pause to consider the true implications of that argument with regard to America's imperial project in the Middle East - in other words, "Support the troops? Why?"). The true progressive position must, therefore, be against the development and implementation of these technologies.

Which leaves only one final question. The ADS focuses a 130 degrees (F) beam on its target. If it's deployed here in Arizona, will we even notice it? I've been to plenty of August demonstrations in Phoenix. On some days the cool breeze of the ADS might actually be welcomed in the streets.

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