Oh, never mind. We’ll just focus on killing people instead. That’s still okay, right?


Upshot: A project for non-lethal force is getting criticized. The Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) system creates a microscopic burst of plasma on contact with skin, which results in incapacitating levels of pain without permanent injury. Critics claim this could be used for torture (it could, yes) and doubt that there is an ethical basis for continued study. Andrew Rice, a consultant in pain medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, said: “Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown.”

My take: Okay, fine. It’s unethical to study how to hurt people without killing them. I guess we’ll just resort to doing things the old fashioned way, and KILLING THEM.

The project, which I read about over a year ago, is to create a weapon that can be deployed on a battlefield, and that will induce excruciating pain in anyone who insists on remaining in the line of fire. Need to clear a street? Sweep the street with this, and it’s clear. Obviously the technology could be abused or misused, just like rubber bullets, tear gas, and that foam stuff they’ve been playing with. Let’s face it, though… there are only three alternatives to providing soldiers with non-lethal force:

  1. Provide them with lethal force, and let them go “weapons free.” The body count will be pretty high, and collateral damage unconscionably so.
  2. Provide them with lethal force, and then saddle them with very restrictive “rules of engagement.” We do this today. Collateral damage is still high, and our soldiers still let themselves get killed by enemy units masquerading as non-combatants. Anybody who thinks this is the best way to do it, raise your hand (just don’t have a gun in it… rules of engagement being what they are, you’re now a hostile target.)
  3. Don’t deploy soldiers at all. War is bad, killing is worse, and it’s all just a Big Lie anyway. Give Peace A Chance.

For obvious reasons, #3 isn’t being seriously considered by anybody in power today (and not just in the US). Some NOT in power shout about it a lot, but the moment they take office, they’ll resort to violence the moment the worm turns.

That leaves us with options #1 and #2. Neither of these are attractive. Barring a sociological solution to organized violence (and that’s what #3 really seeks), we need a technological solution we can live with. The PEP is one such solution. Let the research continue. Soldiers or regimes who choose to use the technology as a torture device will be dealt with the way we deal with torturers today — courts martial, and that nice prison in The Hague. Besides, the research has gone far enough already that industrialized nations seeking to exploit the research for their private torture chambers know enough to do it. The cat, as they say, is already out of the bag. Let’s go ahead and find out if it’s rabid by TESTING it, not by waiting to see who it bites.


41 thoughts on “Oh, never mind. We’ll just focus on killing people instead. That’s still okay, right?”

  1. I assure them, there isn’t much that couldn’t be used for torture when handled by the right (wrong?) person. To use that as a reason to object to something is really just silly.

    1. Yup.

      Yup. I’ve got some Diet Vanilla Pepsi right here. In the wrong hands, and with some duct-tape and a couple of straws… boy, don’t get me started.

      1. Re: Yup.

        That’s what I was thinking. Every object or concept ever created can be turned into a torture device, no matter how innocuous it may seem. Everything. *shrug*

      2. Re: Yup.

        For some reason that conjures up a picture of Michael Palin with a ketchup soaked chip (freedom fry) up each nostril….

  2. “weapons. The review outlined how PEPs produced “pain and temporary paralysis” in animal tests, apparently as a result of “an electromagnetic pulse produced by the expanding plasma which triggers impulses in nerve cells”.”

    I don’t see how a “microscopic” amount of one’s flesh turning into plasma would generate an EM field strong enough to disrupt one’s nerves and muscles. I just don’t see it. Somebody who’s taken more physica and EE classes than I have might be able to explain it to me, though.

    Still, I’m cool with that. Heck, bring it down to sidearm sized and let’s start playing airsoft with it. 🙂


    1. YES! Now, that’s WONDEFUL. A non-lethal weapon that’s effective enough and safe enough to use for combat sports would make my DAY.

      You could probably even tune it so that it wasn’t *TOO* painful, so there was a “wussy” setting for those not hard-core enough for the real thing. *grin*

    2. If it’s the same thing I read about in other sources, they’ve got the description of how it works ALL wrong, but the symptoms of being hit by it are dead-on.

      The system causes microscopic amounts of your flesh to turn into plasma, yes. This DOES cause reddening of the skin, and (I would expect) first-degree burns if trained on a subject for long enough. It ALSO lights up your pain receptors like a christmas tree in the area where the beam hits you. You know how when doctors ask you “on a scale of 1 to 10, how much does this hurt?” Well, the test subjects in the Popular Science write-up (or maybe it was Scientific American) unanimously said “what used to be a 10 for me has now been relegated to 5. I could not BELIEVE how much this hurt.” But the pain only lasted while they were in the path of the beam.

      The fascinating thing is that they couldn’t voluntarily stay in the path of the beam. They TRIED to — the beam was held steady, and all they had to do was stand in its path. None of them could. The involuntary reaction was to move, twist, roll, ANYTHING to make the pain stop. And while the pain DID stop immediately, the MEMORY of the pain, and the metabolic state it triggered, remained behind.

      The current research, to my understanding, at any rate, is not “can we make this thing work?” The current research is “are the after-effects of this pain may be debilitating or injurious? In what way? How does this affect the planned deployment of the device?”

      Arguments about the ethics of testing this on human volunteers (who may end up permanently injured in some previously unforseen way) do have merit. Then again, how do we test battlefield ammunition to see how effective it’ll be? We do basic ballistics and hydrostatic/penetration tests on inanimate objects, and then we issue the ammo to soldiers who shoot the new stuff at people we would have shot the old stuff at. After a few battles, the after-action reports on the new ammo are collected, and a determination is made. Whence ethics there?

      1. I very much wish that I had access to one of these units, to try it out myself. I have several instances of what I consider level 10 pain, each of which “hurt as much as” the others. I have difficulty imagining something hurting twice that much, but the experience would intrigue me, as would experimenting to determine whether one could learn to tolerate it with repeated exposure.

        Perhaps we could make a game show out of it. “This ten thousand dollar prize goes to the person who stands the longest in front of the Agonizer!”

        The fact that hardened Marines were unable to voluntarily stay in the path of the beam also fascinates me. And I’m deeply curious about the psychological effects of being restrained in the path of the beam.

        It’s a shame they’re not asking for volunteers.

  3. There are actually two different technologies at issue here (although the moral issues are, to my mind, indistinguishable). One uses microwave radiation at a specific frequency to cause excruciating pain while you remain within the line of the beam. That’s the one that came out a year ago. The other uses a laser pulse to create a plasma on contact with a solid object that apparently emits a neural-interfering electromagnetic pulse. That’s the new technology that was just announced. The old one causes pain only, and can be moved out of the way of, but can also be applied continuously for torture purposes. The new one apparently causes pain and temporary paralysis, but is a pulsed shot and not a continuous beam.

    Both of them have the distinct advantage that they are non-lethal. The first one, at least (and quite possibly the second as well) have the distinct disadvantage that they cause truly excruciating levels of pain while leaving effectively no mark, no evidence of torture.

    Like, say, torture via electrodes if carefully done. Torture by partial drowning. Torture by harming one’s family members, or even threatening them. Torture by hypothermia. Torture by hyperthermia. Torture by sleep deprivation. Torture by psychological warfare (fake menstrual blood, pork products, being given only an American flag to use as toilet paper, being forced to listen to very loud pop music). Etc. Etc. Etc.

    The thought of the Pentagon with the agonizer doesn’t make me sleep any better at night, but it’s also no reason to dismiss the technology as evil or ban research on it.

    1. Ah, you used the same word I was thinking.

      Any moral or ethical questions aside, you’ve gotta admit, the name they’ve come up with is a magnificent example of Newspeak. “It’s not an ‘Agnoizer’! It’s a PEP Gun! Look at our test subject!” *BZAP* *YOWLP!* “See how he jumped? He’s full of PEP!”

      1. This is rather the opposite of mustard gas. Rather than crippling and debilitating the enemy 6 to 24 hours after exposure, and lasting generally for the rest of their (horrible and agonizingly painful) life, it cripples and debilitates the enemy immediately, for a time which appears likely to be measured in minutes or at most hours.

        While you are correct that ‘s comment is likely an overstatement of his case, I don’t think your objection is particularly germane in the context of this discussion.

    1. American soldiers are nearly unique among the world’s armed forces. American troops, historically, have demonstrated their willingness to accept heavy casualties among themselves in order to protect the lives of enemy civilians.

      It’s up to the chain of command — and ultimately, the individual soldier — how much risk to American lives can be accepted in order to avoid hurting or killing civilians.

      If this wasn’t true, there would hardly be a casualty in Iraq, among US troops. But there’d be a lot more bullet-riddled vehicles at roadblocks, a lot fewer house searches, and a lot more blown-up houses with families inside.

      To save the lives of our boys, do you mind if we skin a screaming baby in front of its mother and dip it in salt? That’s Not A Good Thing.

  4. Oddly, one of the best discussions of the ethical questions non-lethal weaponry raises comes from a game supplement: GURPS Ultra-Tech, by David Pulver. Pulver notes that “stunner” technology makes the use of force essentially consequence-free — you really can “shoot first and ask questions later”.

    One thing to keep in mind is that non-lethal tech is likely to become more widely-used in law enforcement than in a military situation. A policeman isn’t going to put a bullet in you for jaywalking — but he might not think twice about zapping you with his PEP gun.

    Knowing that your weapon has a high probability of maiming or killing someone helps to insure that you’ll only use it when absolutely neccessary. It also means that the threat of force is a useful deterrent.

    Or, as you yourself put it: “I believe that Monsieur would find a bribe to be more effective than brandishing the wee little stunner.”

    1. Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the few authors I enjoy reading as much as our host here, points out a huge flaw with non-lethal weaponry–it’s a lousy deterrent. A mob of 20 people will charge one man wielding a stunner–the 10 who get stunned will wake up with terrible headaches six hours later, and the target will be dead. It takes a lot more to make a mob of 20 people charge one man wielding a neural disrupter/submachine gun–the 10 who don’t get shot will in fact kill their target, but the other 10 will be dead.

      If you’re going to be facing large numbers of enemies, you really want the lethal weaponry on your side. Which is, I imagine, why Star Trek phasers have a “stun” setting and a…what the heck did they call the other setting? “kill”? Anyway. You know.

      1. Which is why I really see this technology being used domestically to suppress dissent more than on the battlefield. Why waste water using firehoses, or send police wading in with riot gear to squelch those dangerous terrorist sympathizers? Just fire up the PEP cannon and herd them into their Free Speech Zones!

      2. Trek phasers…

        Had a Light Stun, Heavy Stun, Heat, Kill, and Disintegrate setting, plus Self-Destruct.

        That was in the REAL Trek, of course. In the wussified later ones, I wonder if they really had Kill or if it was called “Metabolic Interference”.

  5. Not wanting to sound like a troll, but when you consider that your brand new Attorney General is known to be pro-torture, this begins to seem much less like a good thing. Especially when it also sounds like this device can be used for torture without leaving physical evidence.

    1. See my comment above. So can many, many, many, many, many things, almost all of which can be found in the average suburban house.

      1. The thing about those is that they don’t get handed out with a booklet entitled ‘Inflicting Agonising Pain for Dummies’. They weren’t studied, designed and produced in order to make it cheap and convenient to inflict suffering. The tech you’re talking about has no purpose other than hurting people.

        It’s the difference between an ordinary kitchen fork and a fork labelled ‘for eyeballs only’.

        1. It most distinctly does have a purpose other than hurting people–said purpose being to avoid killing said people.

          It’s not the difference between an ordinary kitchen fork and a fork labelled ‘for eyeballs only’. It’s the difference between a carving knife and a scalpel.

          If you try to argue that scalpels should be banned because they have “no purpose other than cutting human flesh”, I will point out the alternatives. Same with this tool/weapon.

          1. What I think the issue is here is ‘instrumentality.’

            In other words, PEP is a new instrument for inflicting torture that would be simple and easy to use without leaving much trace. Up until now, traceless torture has taken a modicum of skill and study of the subject.

            It is well known that it is easier to shoot someone than to stab someone. This is because a trigger pull is literally child’s play — look at arcade games. To knife someone you are forced into intimate close contact with another human being, whom you proceed to gut like a trout.

            It is easier to torture someone with a stun baton than with a real baton. The button and the zapping sound makes the process somehow within the bounds of technology. (There have been cases where stun baton tortures have stopped because the stun function stopped working or the batteries ran low.)

            It is much easier to torture someone by turning a dial on a restrained person than it is to get in their face and cut out fingernails with a scalpel.

  6. “Even if the use of temporary severe pain can be justified as a restraining measure, which I do not believe it can, the long-term physical and psychological effects are unknown.”

    We’ve been doing the beating-with-nightsticks-pain for a “restraining measure” for how long? I know this is a new level, but so what? Pain is pain, hurting someone first stops them from hurting you. Yes, it can be misused. As pointed out, things not intended to hurt can be misused for pain.

    The long-term psychological effects of losing one’s family member are pretty well known. We produce and research how many new lethal weapons? But one designed to not kill is morally wrong? I’m sure I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said, but…

    1. i dunno, i think i’d have a longer term psychological trauma from having a gun pointed at my face or being shot then a beam that stops hurting me the moment i’m no longer being hit by it. as far as the torture, if i was tortoured with ANYTHING, i’d have some serious psychological problems later with whatever i was injured with. be it a beam of pain, a scalpal, or a spork!

  7. So?! It’s a long range cattle prod, or a taser without wires.
    Both of which have been used as torture devices before now, and nobody has suggested banning them. *shrug* No big deal.

    Come to think of it, anything that can cause paralysis, can be dialed up to kill by either disrupting the nerves completly, or paralysing certain sets of muscles. So in theory one could have phaser type weapon, which has both settings.

    What worries me is the number of B5 fans that are going to think the laser based system is a PPG…

    1. i’m reminded of some show on sci-fi channel giving an overly dramatic dark version of every popular science future wonder. the one in particular being a super sophisticated surgical robot thats so precice that it can manage operations that no human could match it, the narrator goes on with some crap like “but anything that can be programed to heal….can be programed to hurt as well” then goes on about how the thing could be turned into a torture device by unscrupulous people.

    This new technology will not be useful for crowd control.

    This new technology will not be useful for sustained control of a single person.

    This new technology will not be useful against a prepared target who is wearing a protective layer.

    This new technology will not be useful against a berserk target or one high on a drug which damps pain response.

    It it really is “the new 10” in pain, that means it is adequate to cause some individuals to go into shock. If this gets used en masse, I believe that we will see someone go into shock and then be trampled by the herd trying to get away from the irresistible pain.

    Note that I am in no way against nonlethal armaments that cause harm or pain in the process. I am a firm believer that if the use of force is justified, a broken arm is a lucky break. And while I sometimes disagree with the State on when it is justified, I am not against technologies just because the State might misuse them.

    But I am against ill-concieved armaments that don’t achieve their stated goals.

    This new technology will provide first contact advantage with a particular enemy. This devolves into the civilian use disabilities as soon as that enemy knows what he is up against, or has it communicated to him by someone else. But that first contact advantage is significant, so I’m cool with that. Just don’t expect this to be a longterm advantage – if you are going to use it in a war, blitzkrieg.

    This new technology will be less useful against an enemy who is throwing something other than tennis balls at you while you aim it at particularly troublesome groups. Tests with marines notwithstanding, an overconfident user is going to get killed, and then the enemy is going to have first contact advantage somewhere YOU aren’t expecting it.

  9. I do not believe…

    … it’s “non-lethal and without permanent injury”. I believe it has LESS chance of lethality or permanent injury. What if the beam hits you in the eye? What if you have a shock-prone individual, or one with a weak heart?

    I also wonder about the “New 10 in Pain”. How many of them have been stung by a sea wasp or a platypus (both of whom produce venoms that act DIRECTLY on the pain nerves)?

  10. Hmm. I’m probably going to be shouted at for this, but I am of the old school thinking. The only good enemy is a corpse. When you hurt a fanatic, or an enemy soldier and don’t kill him, he just finds a new way to kill you. He does not stop trying until you die. That is the reality of the relationship between enemies. It is with utmost force and violence that violent enemies must be crushed. Death is a strong deterrent. Being hurt is a good reason to want to get even. I’m seeing this new nonleathal weapon push war further into gurilla tactics, making it even more dangerous to the soldiers of an occupieing force. Instead of open fighting, all enemy soldiers will be hiden, to more effectively dispatch the occupying hord. More bombs, rocketlaunchers, trip mines, proximity mines, etc, will become the staple of the new warfare. And it will be costly to the US. In the short term it works well as a crowd controle device, and I approve of the design and theoretical application of both types of nonleathal weapons, but feel they will change the scope of warfare, and drive it into an even darker place. Thats my view.

    1. You’ve got a very valid point. We’ve got no business fighting wars if we haven’t got the stomach to kill people.

      I see this device being deployed on “battlefields” where 90% of the population is non-combatant — not in situations where we know we’re engaging enemy forces in strength, like the “Operation Anaconda” of 2002.


  11. Unfortunately, I’m in agreement with the people that the ‘non-lethal’ options are going to be less effective on the battlefield than they will against meek civilians or relatively helpless prisoners; for them, the threat of pain MAY be enough to stop them from charging you again. On the battlefield, I may HURT the target, which may indeed help me kill him or maim him before he can fight back, but I can’t see them depending on this sort of technology alone. How long can the pulses be sustained? Would repeated pulsing over a period of minutes or hours do more than minor superficial damage? If the guy has a bomb strapped to him, will it stop him from triggering the device, or would it be easier and faster, not to mention safer, to shoot him in the head and then disarm his cooling corpse?

    Fear and pain are useful as deterrents in the proper situations, but death is kinda hard to beat with most people, even people who feel they’ll be going to a better place upon being killed – at least they stop coming at you.

  12. I’m much more concerned about the hammer-nail problem.

    “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

    To provide examples of this with present technology, police are apparently more and more trigger-happy with Tasers. Locally, a police officer shot a bystander high school student with a Taser because he did not instantly obey a verbal command. This caused some controversy, but not nearly as much as if the student had been shot dead.

    Also there’s a problem of too many weapons systems and restrictive rules of engagement. You don’t want to load someone down with complex rules of engagement including different modalities, especially in a military environment, when split second decisions may result in horrible mistakes.

    However, I have no ethical problem with developing the technology. I simply agree that it should not be done in secret, and use should be accountable, as with any other use of force.

  13. I’m going to overlook the various moral and ethical angles, and speak out as the geek/first-person shooter gamer that I am: PLASMA RIFLE!!! *geekgasm*

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