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Monday, April 09, 2007

The heat ray or the bullet? Which best preserves elite rule?

A little further down I have posted a video of a test of the government's new microwave crowd-dispersal heat ray that it hopes will revolutionize its ability to control riotous masses at home and abroad with as little collateral damage as possible.

In a world that is increasingly monitored everywhere in real time all the time, thus making clandestine work against the system also ever more difficult, we ought to be very worried about government attempts to make mobs and riotous demonstrations impossible as well. That's an important development, because mobs, riots and other illegal mass actions are vital weapons in revolutionaries' arsenals. From the perspective of the ruling class, the hope seems to be to sanitize and control one of the last few forms of political organizing that can potentially threaten the state's interests - the riot. Taming this last uncontrollable would be a tremendous coup for the elite class.

Phoenix hometown heroes Raytheon makes a version of this tech, which they call the Silent Guardian. According to their website,
The Silent Guardian™ protection system is a revolutionary less-than-lethal directed energy application that employs millimeter wave technology to repel individuals or crowds without causing injury. The system provides a zone of protection that saves lives, protects assets and minimizes collateral damage. Silent Guardian produces precise effects at longer ranges than current less-than-lethal systems and provides real-time ability to establish intent and de-escalate aggression. Various commercial and military applications include law enforcement, checkpoint security, facility protection, force protection and peacekeeping missions. The system is available now and ready for action.
The problem from our standpoint as revolutionaries is that sometimes the very things that the system's new weapon is designed to protect (certain lives and assets) are precisely the things that even very legitimate social movements sometimes need to put in jeopardy in order to accomplish our political goals. This, of course, shouldn't be controversial; after all, isn't that what states use armies and police for?


This weapon fits the democratic state's self-image quite well, punishing illegal and supposedly illegitimate activity like rioting with a relatively less dangerous crowd control technology. However, there have been problems. As the tests expand, more injuries from the weapon are popping up.

Nevertheless, in critiquing this new technology, we should be careful not to fall into the liberal trap of focusing on its dangerousness to health. Our criticisms must cut deeper than that. Protecting and expanding human freedom, not just revolutionary goals, requires that people be able to engage in illegal mass action. Breaking laws, even from a non-revolutionary perspective is vital to overturning unjust laws and regimes. The less that is possible, the closer we come to that final march into total domination by the elite class. Losing that, all we will have is the vote, and what good is that - especially when not backed up by the threat of a riotous population?

But, despite the billions being spent on so-called non-lethal weapons, there is some disagreement within the elite itself about the consequences and usefulness of these weapons. Not, of course, out of any concern for our safety or ability to participate in politics. No, it's centered around the question of what might happen if the threat of violent oppression were taken off the table, replaced, presumably by less lethal weaponry for crowd control. What if instead of controlling them it in fact emboldened the people in the streets? If that turned out to be the case, perhaps it would be better, from their perspective, to stick to old fashioned guns, billy clubs and grenades.

In an article in Sunday's SF Chronicle, John Arquilla writes from a very interesting perspective about these weapons - one rarely acknowledged in the public discourse.
One major project that receives billions in support involves using force without killing: so-called "nonlethal weapons." These include a wide range of new devices mostly intended to achieve control over unruly crowds.

Added to the rubber bullets that have been around for a long time are rubber grenades. These were developed because crowds can set up mattress barricades to fend off rubber bullets and shotgun-fired bean bags. But a grenade can be tossed over the mattresses, shooting out hard little rubber balls in every direction when it explodes.

Another crowd-control device is known by the typically opaque Pentagon moniker "active denial." This is a system designed to use millimeter-length directed energy waves to overheat skin. The idea is that a crowd will quickly find that it literally cannot take the heat of a confrontation with our troops.

Much care is given to avoiding lethal effects or permanent damage. Rubber bullets and grenade pellets are hard enough to hurt, but it is believed they will seldom do permanent harm.

And the short wave-length of active-denial systems means the human skin will feel as if it is on fire, but only on the surface, unlike a microwave, which penetrates more than an inch (and is why these are good for heating food). The point is, people won't actually be getting cooked.

But there are huge problems with nonlethal weapons. Sometimes rubber bullets do kill people, usually children when they are struck in the head. A crowd that thinks it is on fire may stampede, and many may die from trampling.

Even a handful of deaths caused by supposedly nonlethal weapons would undermine the whole notion of trying to take a measured response, as the Israelis have found in their efforts to deal with stone-throwing Palestinian mobs over the years.

Even more serious is the problem that, if an unruly populace knows you aren't going to use lethal force, it has every reason to keep to the streets. The choice to use nonlethal weapons tells the crowd that their risk is minimized. This is one of the reasons that the first intifada went on for about seven years (1987-93), as has the second one. Nonlethal force, it turns out, is not much of a deterrent.

Clearly, then, there are reasons to scrutinize carefully the whole idea of pouring money into nonlethal weapons. Nonetheless, a host of them are being developed. Beyond rubber-pellet grenades and super-heating devices, there are weapons that shock with sound, some that temporarily blind, even sticky foams designed to freeze people in place.

It's time to close the spending spigot on most of these. They all suffer from the same problems of being hard to use discriminately and having the unwitting potential, simply because they are nonlethal, to foment rather than tamp down unrest.

Perhaps a better choice might be upgrading the arsenal of deadly weapons.
As I have written before, those of us interested in the future of social struggle would do well to pay attention to this debate, not just for its tactical and strategic honesty, but also for the way it highlights the point at which the state's democratic theory collides with the harsh reality that the democratic state, like any other, exists to protect the wealth and power of a very small capitalist and bureaucratic elite.

When referencing democratic theory with regard to mass movements, elites almost always lecture self-righteously about the necessity of participating in the existing system while denouncing those illegal politics like riots, direct action and armed struggle that refuse to be contained within it. This was the case when the Portland news outlets swarmed to denounce last month's anti-war protest. The Portland Insight lashed out:
If the cause of peace is worth supporting — and we believe it is — then peace protesters must demonstrate the values they promote. The vast majority of the estimated 15,000 protesters who took part in a peace march Sunday in downtown Portland did just that. They were well-behaved, well-intentioned and serious about their cause.

But then there was a smaller group of demonstrators — if they can even be called that — who engaged in numerous actions that violated the sensibilities of ordinary people and damaged the very cause the activists claimed to endorse.

This splinter group of protesters showed its support for “peace” by burning a U.S. soldier in effigy. It exhibited its supposedly pacifist nature by knocking a police officer off his bike — an action that brought out the police riot squad.

...

The anti-war demonstrators who behaved responsibly this past weekend have an obligation to denounce — and distance themselves from — those protesters who purposefully offend others and consequently destroy the intended message of peace.
The Oregonian echoed that message, saying,
P eople who marched through downtown Portland against the U.S. military mission in Iraq on Sunday put on a remarkable display. A reported 15,000 marched and chanted in opposition to the war and the White House strategy in Iraq -- many more than gathered in San Francisco or New York.

Most of the marchers were peaceful and reasonable. A few were not. Unfortunately, the most memorable images from the protest will be of the few and not of the many.

On the South Park Blocks, a handful of people set afire a uniformed effigy of a U.S. soldier and an upside-down flag. Around them, bystanders took pictures. Some of these images have made several loops of the planet by now, with the "Portland" marquee from the Performing Arts Center centered in the background.

The backlash began a day later.
Some demonstrators had deviated from the script. If mass organizing is given props at all, it is only when it remains cowed, begging and, most of all, non-violent - even in the face of extreme state violence. While this position is hypocritical, in a real sense - and for obvious reasons - this does reflect the experience of most elites, who generally do find the system responsive to their legal participation. Of course, the elite itself also quite regularly breaks the law in the pursuit of its own politics. However, because the system is of its own design most of the time they don't have to.

Keep your eye on the development and deployment of less lethal technology. In many ways, it is an indicator of a very real debate going on in the elite these days about the role of violence in maintaining their dominance over society. As with technology in general, these advances represent the continuing determination of an elite class to control for their own selfish benefit the rest of society. As best we can, our movement must oppose their existence and proliferation. We must likewise reject the public safety red herring offered up for our consumption by liberals.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and to all whose physics education is more up-to-date, aren't microwave weapons line-of-sight? and couldn't we create metal coated shields to keep the crowd in 'shadow'?

Mon Apr 09, 01:28:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Peter Golden said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wed Aug 01, 09:28:00 PM 2007  

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