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There’s No Such Thing as a 'Non-Lethal' Weapon

Tasers, pepper spray, and other "non-lethal" or "less lethal" devices still have the potential to cripple or kill, and we need to recognize that.

The US government loves to test new "non-lethal" weapons, like pepper spray. Photos via US Department of Defense Flickr feed unless otherwise noted

Late last month, the spill of headlines calling out the Hong Kong authorities' use of non-lethal weapons against democracy demonstrators gathered international attention and condemnation from NGOs like Human Rights Watch. For onlookers in the US, such news dovetailed with a St. Louis neighborhood's standoff with riot police that spread 12 miles north, where yet another young black man was recently shot and killed by an off-duty officer.

From the 1960s Civil Rights movement to the Arab Spring, these events fall in line with a decades-long history of televised protests during which police weaponry has alarmed the media, activists, and the public. The use of non-lethal weapons on civilians (like the use of any type of weapon on anybody) is often the spark that leads to city streets devolving into war zones and the police beginning to act like an army. Deaths, accidental or otherwise, start to pile up.

But we should be clear about something: There's really no such thing as a "non-lethal" weapon. A weapon's lethality is, ultimately, not up to the object itself. Arguing otherwise is an attempt to shift one of our greatest moral responsibilities onto an inanimate object that has no agency.

From last year's protests in Istanbul, where I personally witnessed people my age crumple to the ground after being hit by tear-gas canisters, to the beginning stages of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, non-lethal weapons have killed people. Medical examiners have listed them as primary causes of death. Military analysts have debated the ethics of non-lethal weapons applications ever since chemical gasses debuted in World War I, and international political bodies have banned and restricted certain non-lethal weapons from being used in conventional warfare.

Even so, these weapons comprise a multibillion-dollar international industry that's expected to double in size by 2020, with more and more nations allocating research and development funds toward tools of what's called "asymmetrical warfare." Their growth and usage won't stop, but that doesn't mean we should allow them to continue being sold beneath a banner that's misleadingly innocent.

First, though, it's necessary to point out why it is these weapons have collected the term "non-lethal." In theory, they are a humane alternative to the bullet by way of velocity, material, and engineering. Generally referred to as an intermediary to fit the gap between "shouting and shooting," they allow service members and civilians alike to use force in a way that reduces the likelihood of taking someone's life.

Colonel Michael Coolican, director of the US Department of Defense's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, attests to this. He's one of many government personnel overseeing the technical development of non-lethal weaponry for US military usage at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Located within its walls, according to Coolican, is a group of scientists and researchers who "think and live non-lethal weapons 24 hours a day."

"Weapons, devices and munitions that are explicitly intended to have reversible effects on people and material," he said when I asked how the DoD defines non-lethal. "But it's also important to point out that non-lethal weapons are not intended to replace lethal force."

Tear gas has been a big part of the police response to protests in Hong Kong. Photo via Flickr user Leung Ching Yau Alex 

These weapons, he told me, go through a rigorous testing process before being deployed in the field. They're run through what's called "Human Effects Modeling Analysis," a computerized testing system that partly relies on human body simulators to calculate the proper firing distances for effective, reversible results. They also come before a handful of governmental and independent review committees, consisting of experts from academia, law enforcement, the scientific community, and the military.

But for many of the Directorate's weapons, the term "non-lethal" seems more like a PR gambit than an actual descriptor. Take the Mission Payload Module Non-Lethal Weapons System. Still in development, it's a 66 mm cannon that attaches to vehicles and, according to a DoD non-lethal weapons list, has "a high volume of fire and capability to transition from non-lethal to lethal engagements within seconds." The title, it appears, only paints half the picture.

Another, the well-publicized Active Denial System, uses a millimeter wave to stimulate water and fat cells within a target's skin, ultimately bringing them down with an unbearable sensation of heat. Though it's deemed "non-lethal," it placed one soldier in an intensive burn ward in 2008, and was removed from a brief deployment in Afghanistan in 2010 for undisclosed reasons many speculate were informed by worry that the Taliban might use it to stir up anti-US propaganda. 

At the end of our talk, I asked Coolican if any weapon can ever truly be considered non-lethal. "The amount of work we do with non-lethals, and not just here in the Directorate but through those independent review panels as well, really puts the rigor in to assure that these weapons meet the Department of Defense's definition," he responded. "The training and rules of engagement get put in place together, and I'm very comfortable that that's the way we should be going forward."

Following the US military's documented history of human rights abuses during the war in Iraq, a set of less harmful, more discerning means for dispersing urban conflict zones is welcomed. But not if these weapons have secondary lethal functions and the potential to put people in the hospital with long-term injuries.

It's all part of a major puzzle that the Directorate, and many other weapons producers, seem bent on solving: How do you engineer the perfect oxymoron? One that doesn't do anything horrible to the target but is so nasty that it makes the target never want to encounter it again? It also has to balance the weight of international protocols, like the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (which, according to information obtained by Wikileaks and Georgetown Professor David Koplow, the US hasn't cared much for), and the 1998 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons.

One company believes it has the answer. Previously rooted in the police and domestic markets but now widely employed by US military, no intermediary weapons producer has been more successful (or contentious) than Taser International.

Tasers are ingrained in American culture and beloved by the military

The Taser electric current device is arguably the de facto symbol of non-lethal weapons in America. It's such a symbol, in fact, that like Band-aid, Seadoo, Kleenex, and Frisbee, its trademarked name is now a generic noun used to describe any type of similar item.

But a Taser isn't "non-lethal." It's "less lethal"-a term that a growing number of intermediary weapons distributors have opted to use when marketing their devices. When I asked company spokesperson Steve Tuttle about this, he said the title is beyond the point.

"You're either a firearm or you're not," he said. "Non-lethals can be treated just like all other weapons in court."

He told me that the Taser, when used properly, has been proven safer than tackling a person to the ground. Later, when I asked him if any weapon can ever truly be considered non-lethal, he suggested that the question is litigious. "You can really apply the 'no such thing as non-lethal' argument to anything. If you put a cotton ball in a baby's mouth, it can be lethal.

"You have to go back to how it's used," he added. "Make sure there are safe protocols, good oversight, and recurring training programs. Once you go outside those things, all bets get called off. You know, if you take a blowdryer and use it in the bathtub, it's not being used properly, and it then becomes pernicious."

"Something like a cotton ball or a blow dryer, though, wasn't created with the same intent as a tool of force," I replied.

"There's no middle ground-with weapons, it's either deadly force or intermediate force," he said. "You have to follow what the courts say. A lot of the time it's the subject who chooses his own destiny. With police encounters, you are given an option to comply. If you refuse to comply, you're at risk. Then you might be subject to violence."

After our phone conversation, Tuttle emailed me a barrage of statistical literature showcasing Taser's success, such as charts on how the device has saved police departments money by preventing officer injuries and thereby reducing worker's comp claims, and reports that outline how injury rates of suspects and police officers have declined by more than 25 percent in some cities after Tasers were introduced to law enforcement.

All of which is impressive testimony, even if it exists in a realm that's disconnected from many of the ethical criticisms leveled at Taser and other "less-lethals" over the past decade. Among others, the United Nations Committee on Torture chose to highlight Taser abuse in its 2007 report. Today, questionable police activities continue to ignite these types of criticisms, and as long as they're still happening, activists argue, Taser and similar weapons are up for trial in the public square.

Of the various brutal incidents, none is more illustrating than the death of Gregory Lewis Towns Jr.

After police in East Point, Georgia, responded to reports of a domestic dispute between Towns and his girlfriend in April, Towns fled on foot before being apprehended by a creek. He was handcuffed but refused to stand and walk to the police car, telling officers he was tired. Police then began using their Tasers on Towns to try to get him to move, much in the way a rancher might cattle-prod a cow. Minutes later, he was unconscious.

In the police report, officers recounted only Tasing Towns five or six times. But a computer log within the weapons revealed that the actual number of discharges totaled 13. The medical examiner ruled Towns's death a homicide, even after it came to light that he suffered from a heart condition; now his family is slapping the officers with a wrongful death suit.

Tuttle concedes that the Taser has indeed been a key component in some police-related deaths, but argues that its actual firing mechanism has never stopped a heart. While this position is still a subject of debate, in Towns's case, it's a tertiary concern. He didn't die because of a Taser. He died because two police officers battered him excessively. And if police are being instructed to use Tasers on "tired" men in handcuffs, then he died because of inhumane and flawed training protocols.

This is why the terms "less-lethal" or "non-lethal" are problematic. If you're equipped with a weapon whose title literally means "cannot kill," and whose distributors claim has never been the primary cause of a person's death, is it not far-fetched to assume you would use it more liberally than a conventional firearm? How would Towns' death have looked if the officers were witnessed using another type of weapon, like batons? Thirteen baton strikes would have (hopefully) sent them to jail. Pepper spray? Thirteen applications of pepper spray would have likely brought accusations of sociopathy, or torture.

Pepper spray field training in Mongolia. Photo via the US Pacific Command Flickr feed

Stephen Coleman, a military and police ethics expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, shares these concerns.

"The biggest issues with non-lethal weapons arise out of the fact that because they are 'non-lethal'-or at least thought or intended to be non-lethal-the threshold for their use is much, much lower than the use of deadly force," he told me via email. "The oversight of their use is, not coincidentally, also much less intense than the oversight of the use of lethal weapons."

As one piece of evidence, he points to a 2009 study conducted by the Office of Police Integrity in Victoria, Australia, that found that the number of pepper spray uses reported by some Victorian police precincts was suspiciously lower than the number of pepper spray cans they continued to order.

"Any weapon, even one designed to be non-lethal, can have lethal effects if used in the wrong way or at the wrong time," he tells me. "Even a really, really good non-lethal weapon needs to be used with some common sense, but that is noticeably lacking in a lot of cases."

In America, incidences of carelessness aren't going unnoticed. On October 8, Attorney General Eric Holder told a room of police chiefs in Little Rock, Arkansas, that US law enforcement needs to change. While focusing on the Michael Brown shooting, he argued for a new approach to policing tactics that would "provide strong, national direction on a scale not seen since President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement nearly half a century ago." He also announced that the Justice Department is working with police associations to survey the state of procedure throughout the country.

Whether or not this soft indictment produces noticeable results remains to be seen. But if the White House is ready to join the path already laid down by media, activists, human rights groups, and the public, it should start with its most powerful tool: policy. We need unprecedented national policies that build a new status quo of police culture in which subjects are also seen as potential victims.

This cannot be done until we stop differentiating weapons with the innocuous language of "non-lethal." They have killed, and they will likely continue to kill, until we stop telling police and military forces they're incapable of causing grave harm.

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