Tech Wars in Meat Space

Protest Goes ‘Star Trek’ With Nonlethal Weapons

When Carlo Giuliani's rage at the new world order turned violent during the recent G-8 summit in Genoa, he was hit with an old-fashioned response: two bullets that ripped through his head. Police forces are asking themselves if that kind of death is an inevitable part of street clashes, or if high-tech nonlethal weapons could offer a way out.

Police in the future may be armed with energy beams that inflict a burning sensation on skin without causing permanent damage, or even painlessly and temporarily immobilize a rioting demonstrator. Waves of sound and light could disorient mobs, and sticky foam could trap them like flies on a strip.

"As things stand, if you dropped Wyatt Earp into today's world he'd be pretty comfortable," says Captain Charles "Sid" Heal, a nationally regarded nonlethal-weapons guru with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. But Earp's bullets aren't the answer to every breach of code, he says. Save them for a time when inaction will cost a life, and consider even that a failure for not acting nonlethally, sooner.

Illustration by George Bates

Activists worry that cops with gentler means of crowd restraint will be more likely to nip protests in the bud, preventing any message from getting out. Already, demonstrations have been wrecked and people injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.

"The increasing popularity of less lethal weapons is a two-edged sword," says David Jackson, a spokesman for, a Web site dedicated to tracking police abuses. "On the one hand, their use causes far fewer deaths than the use of traditional firearms. On the other hand, the perception that they are 'nonlethal' results in their indiscriminate or improper use to a far greater degree than such use of traditional firearms."

That's not a bad thing, according to Colonel Andrew Mazzara, director of the U.S. Marine's Institute for Emerging Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State University. "I would assume and hope that the 'trigger' would be pulled sooner than a lethal weapon," he says.

Faced with that hard line, rabble-rousers are piling gadgets into their own box of tricks. Protesters now have robots that can graffiti public spaces at lightning speed. The technology exists for real flying saucers to project laser messages onto the sides of buildings or display text on their underbellies with light-emitting diodes.

The Institute for Applied Autonomy, the techno-artist collective that makes the remote-controlled GraffitiWriter, sees nothing ahead but growth. "[T]he IAA has identified the already emerging market of cultural insurrection as the most stable market in the years to come," says their Web site. "IAA research has examined the primary behavior patterns of this market and is developing technologies that best serve the needs of the burgeoning market."

The term "nonlethal" is a goal, not a guarantee, because these weapons can be deadly if used carelessly. Heal counts 11 deaths from bean-bag rounds in North America alone. That's what scares activists. "Ill-trained, overzealous, angry cops frequently use pepper spray as an impromptu, 'officially sanctioned' form of torture," says Jackson of Likewise, firehoses and truncheons have broken bones.

Modifications to these weapons on the Penn State radar include a water cannon made by Jaycor that can deliver an electric charge. New sensors on muzzles can slow projectiles when a target is too close for safety. Another new projectile is the Sticky Shocker, a battery-powered device that clings to its target's clothing with glue and barbs, delivering an incapacitating electric charge. There are even billy clubs that fire soft projectiles and ensnaring nets.

Streams of gluey foam, like a souped-up version of the party favor Crazy String, can also immobilize suspects or create barriers. That was done by marines in Somalia, who created perimeters of the foam to block mobs as UN forces withdrew. Problem was, those barriers were easily bridged by laying down planks of wood and sheets of plastic.

Small explosives that deliver a burst of shockwaves can be used to disorient an entire crowd, as can LE Systems' handheld "Laser Dazzler," which is essentially over-stimulating rave gear that could have been designed by Dr. Evil. Some speculate that infrasound assaults of low-frequency waves could confuse people and if applied in greater doses will produce vomiting, diarrhea, deafness, and death.

A nonlethal-weapons laboratory may sound like another Tower of London, but any of these ideas might have spared Carlo Giuliani's life. "The standard is not perfection," Heal says. "The standard is the alternative"—death by gunshot. "Our immediate retort is, What would you rather be shot with?"

Still, he knows that standards within police forces don't match the layman's ideal. "Everything changed on a Thursday night in 1966," he says. "When Star Trek first aired and the phaser entered the public psyche, it set the standard whether we liked it or not." He's serious. "The phaser as conceived on Star Trek is portable. It discriminates, meaning you can target one individual without affecting another. It's reusable and environmentally benign. It defeats the will and the ability to resist, and the guy recovers with no aftereffects. It just makes people after nonlethal tools drool," says Heal.

The federal government has Kirk envy, too. Air force research labs announced in March the creation of a beam weapon that caused a target to feel burning pain—as if one had touched a hot light bulb—but without causing permanent damage. Only the top 1/64th of an inch of the skin is affected, according to the air force. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is developing another beam that goes to the core, raising body temperature and provoking a debilitating fever of up to 105 degrees. Other national labs have worked toward developing beams that induce grogginess or small seizures.

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