Rolling Back the Enlightenment: Pentagon “Pain Ray” to Debut in L.A.

2010 August 26
by Ando Arike

After languishing overseas for a half-dozen years in the Global War on Terror, the Pentagon’s Active Denial System (ADS)—the “non-lethal” crowd control weapon better known as the “pain ray”—may finally be gaining a foothold here in the “homeland.” Last week, in what officials said was an effort to reduce inmate violence, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced it was testing a scaled-down, renamed version of ADS called the “Assault Intervention Device” at the notorious Pitchess Detention Center. Corrections officers will reportedly use the device’s millimeter-wave beam, which produces an intense burning sensation in its targets’ skin, to break up fights and enforce discipline.

Don’t tell the inmates but, ironically, the Pentagon aborted the weapon system’s deployment in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib torture revelations aroused fears that Iraqis would view it as a torture device; more recently, ADS was recalled from Afghanistan over similar fears that it would drive Afghans to support the Taliban. Such “political” concerns apparently won’t prevent this technology from having its first operational field test in Los Angeles, where it will be evaluated for possible use in correctional facilities nationwide under a six-month study funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Dept. of Justice’s research arm.

Government by Pain Compliance?

The Active Denial/non-lethal weapons story is one I’ve been following closely for several years; my interest led to a March 2010 article “The Softkill Solution: New Frontiers in Pain Compliance” (Harper’s Magazine), which began:

Not long ago, viewers of CBS’s 60 Minutes were treated to an intriguing bit of political theater when, in a story called “The Pentagon’s Ray Gun,” a crowd of what seemed to be angry protesters confronted a Humvee with a sinister-looking dish antenna on its roof. Waving placards that read WORLD PEACE, LOVE FOR ALL, PEACE NOT WAR, and, oddly, HUG ME, the crowd, in reality, was made up of U.S. soldiers playacting for the camera at a military base in Georgia. Shouting “Go home!” they threw what looked like tennis balls at uniformed comrades, “creating a scenario soldiers might encounter in Iraq,” explained correspondent David Martin: “angry protesters advancing on American troops, who have to choose between backing down or opening fire.” Fortunately—and this was the point of the story—there is now another option, demonstrated when the camera cut to the Humvee, where the “ray gun” operator was lining up the “protesters” in his crosshairs. Martin narrated: “He squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done.” World peace would have to wait.

The story was in essence a twelve-minute Pentagon infomercial. What the “protesters” had come up against was the Active Denial System, a weapon, we were told, that “could change the rules of war and save huge numbers of lives in Iraq.” Active denial works like a giant, open-air microwave oven, using a beam of electromagnetic radiation to heat the skin of its targets to 130 degrees and force anyone in its path to flee in pain—but without injury, officials insist, making it one of the few weapons in military history to be promoted as harmless to its targets. The Pentagon claims that 11,000 tests on humans have resulted in but two cases of second-degree burns, a “safety” record that has put active denial at the forefront of an international arms-development effort involving an astonishing range of technologies: electrical weapons that shock and stun; laser weapons that cause dizziness or temporary blindness; acoustic weapons that deafen and nauseate; chemical weapons that irritate, incapacitate, or sedate; projectile weapons that knock down, bruise, and disable; and an assortment of nets, foams, and sprays that obstruct or immobilize. “Non-lethal” is the Pentagon’s approved term for these weapons, but their manufacturers also use the terms “soft kill,” “less-lethal,” “limited effects,” “low collateral damage,” and “compliance.” The weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.

The article goes on to argue that non-lethal weapons are a systemic response to two developments: first, a crisis of capitalist growth in which Western elites are finding it necessary (and opportune) to “roll back the Enlightenment,” dismantling democratic institutions and social safety nets, and driving down working-class wages; and second, the rise of global telecommunication systems that have made violent repression increasingly difficult to conceal: today, as they used to say in the Sixties, “the whole world is watching.”

Contrary to the official narrative, the current “recession” is not a momentary setback, but the onset of a prolonged period of economic contraction, brought on by global capitalism’s self-destructive pillaging of natural resources, the saturation of key consumer markets, and a growing Third World rebellion. As I write in my Harper’s piece, the coming years will be an era in which “the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting full-fledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call ‘the political utility of force,’ allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously.” That’s the theory, at any rate…

The Raytheon Connection

The Active Denial System and its smaller millimeter-wave cousin in L.A.’s Pitchess Detention Center are what the military calls “directed energy weapons,” a category that also includes lasers and such things as the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which uses a focused beam of high-powered sound to “modify behavior,” as its manufacturer puts it. Directed-energy, the military literature makes clear, is currently the “Holy Grail” of non-lethal weapons research, and a major reason is its suitability for rheostatic or “tuneable” weapons that, like Star Trek’s “phaser,” will allow users to fine-tune the amount—and even type—of force turned on adversaries, giving police and soldiers more flexibility in exerting control. Significantly, the millimeter-wave “pain rays” described in this article are made by the defense industry behemoth Raytheon, whose chief lobbyist, William Lynn, was appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense by the Obama Administration—despite a campaign pledge to bar corporate lobbyists from public office. With such highly-placed advocacy, Raytheon’s directed-energy weapons are now poised for a large influx of R&D funding and public relations campaigning to pave the way for their everyday use. It would appear that the National Institute of Justice study noted above, now testing the “pain ray” in L.A. jails, is the first step towards the weapon’s full deployment on U.S. streets. Seem far-fetched? Ten years ago who’d heard of the Taser?

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