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On the efficacy of resisting non-lethal weapons

Originally designed after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 to help the US Navy repel unwanted approaching boats, the non-lethal Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) has not surprisingly worked its way down to the level of local law enforcement.

At two different town hall meetings and a sand castle building competition in San Diego recently, local police had the LRAD – which generates a narrow beam of intense sound that can be physically painful and even permanently damage hearing – on the ready in case any shenanigans broke out.

This is the first I’ve heard of this weapon being deployed domestically at political gatherings, although I’m sure it won’t be the last.

In a recent episode of Bang Goes The Theory, a new popular science show on the BBC, the team sees whether the LRAD can be defeated by a ridiculous looking sound proofed helmet. To see what happens, check out the video.

David Hambling over at Danger Room puts this latest effort at “foiling non-lethal crowd control weapons” in context:

Ever since police and security forces started using non-lethal weapons for crowd control, people have been looking for ways to counter them, trying everything from onions, tinfoil and Viagra.

Take tear gas, which has been around in various forms since the First World War and has been a regular feature of demonstrations from Seattle to Tehran to Khartoum. Experienced protesters expecting a blast of tear gas bring eye protection in the form of goggles and use a bandanna soaked in water or vinegar as an improvised gas mask. Real pros bring actual gas masks. An alternative approach is to use onion juice, which allegedly reduces the effect, a technique which is used everywhere from Israel to Iran.

As crowd-control weapons proliferate, so do the ideas for how to stop them. Danger Room looked at Thor’s range of Taser-proof clothing (jackets, gloves, even hats) and the idea that you could block the Active Denial System “pain beam” with tin foil . Although the ADS is simply a beam of microwaves, you need 100% full body coverage to be effective, as even a small area uncovered will produce enough pain for what the enthusiasts like to call “the repel effect.”

Laser dazzlers are likely to be countered with dark goggles or visors. And then there are new strobe weapons, such as the LED Incapacitator (misleadingly called the “puke saber”: It might nauseate you, but it has not actually caused vomiting in tests). A few years ago, Andrew Stockman of the Institute of Ophthalmology in London showed that 100 mg doses of Viagra reduced the sensitivity to flickering lights, opening the possibility that a few blue tablets might give protection against strobe weapons.

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However, all of these approaches suffer from the same fundamental drawback. Non-lethal devices are not used in isolation, and much of the time their main purpose it to separate the harmless protesters or civilians from the hardcore troublemakers. Anyone who turns up wearing a tinfoil suit, gas mask and visor is — in the eyes of the police or security forces — looking for trouble and is likely to get it.

As Capt. Jay Delarosa, spokesman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, told me: “If an individual makes extensive efforts to counter the effect of a non-lethal system, then they are likely showing hostile intent and an escalation of force may be warranted based on existing rules of engagement.”

Protesters taking such defensive measures also goes against one of the main tenants of principled nonviolence. Gandhi and King both believed that a willingness to accept suffering was an important part of reaching out to the opponent. And perhaps even more importantly, they believed that images in the media of defenseless nonviolent protesters being beaten or doused with tear gas would be the most effective way to draw greater sympathy from the general public for the cause and expose the injustice of the system they were resisting.

In fact, national outrage over footage of peaceful, well dressed marchers and high school kids being attacked by the police with water cannons, clubs and tear gas in Selma and Birmingham directly led to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act by the government.

Seeing a wall of riot police face off against a line of protesters suited in all the gear to protect themselves against the vast array of non-lethal weapons would not likely have the same effect.