Friday, December 21, 2012

A Non-Lethal Deterrent

Watching a young man in the suburbs load an arsenal of weapons into the boot of his car, the powers that be concluded his intentions were hostile. Accordingly they eliminated him before he could do any harm. Imagine if this had been in Newtown, Conn last Friday. Twenty children would still be alive and enjoying the holiday season. 

Instead this was a “signature strike” drone attack in a region of the Yemen under the control of Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). A signature strike targets individuals or groups “who bear characteristics associated with terrorism but whose identities are not known.” In this case, the signature was a young man stocking his car with AK-47s. 

As it turned out, he wasn’t an AQAP militant but a civilian on his way to a wedding. It’s traditional to fire guns in the air at Yemeni weddings. Consequently, the United States government launched yet another botched drone attack in which innocent people were killed.

Looking at the two events in tandem - the drone attack in Yemen and the Newton massacre - it’s clear Barak Obama’s priorities are completely wrong. Here’s a president who hasn’t passed a single bit of gun legislation during his entire time in office, yet approves dozens of drone attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia -fostering the next generation of militant Islamists bent on attacking Americans, I might add.

“When Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, he had authorized more drone strikes than George W. Bush had approved during his entire presidency. By his third year in office, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay.” 

So wrote Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman, in his book Kill Or Capture about Obama’s secret war of drone strikes and covert operations. Klaidman’s unique insight recounts the painful deliberations the president went through over successive briefings by the military and CIA regarding the planned executions of people on the “kill list”. He also describes how Obama ultimately wholeheartedly embraced the practice. Homeboy has a jones for drones.

Drone attacks on Somali pirates aren’t common, thank God. Rather, to monitor the multifarious activities of majeerteen fishermen around the Horn of Africa, the US military flies regular unmanned arial missions out of Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia for surveillance purposes only. It’s up to the combined task force 151 (CTF 151), an international maritime defense fleet deployed in the Gulf of Aden, to come to the aid of any vessels under attack by pirates.  

Although many ships these days will not sail through the Gulf without armed guards on board, the wider maritime community disallows lethal weapons on seafaring vessels. Most countries forbid them aboard ships that sail into their ports, which kind of makes sense. In an effort to combat piracy within the restrictions of maritime law, therefore, more and more shipping companies are now deploying non-lethal defences aboard their ships.

What constitutes non-lethal? Wether its a dazzle gun, long range acoustic device, boat trap, electric fence, slippery foam, optical laser distractor, robot anti-pirate boat, or active denial system, the key characteristic of a non-lethal weapon is its effectiveness in deterring and disarming attackers without necessarily harming them. 

Take the active denial system, an energy weapon designed for “area denial, perimeter security and crowd control.” Sometimes referred to as a heat ray, it works by cooking its targets, much like a microwave oven, causing intolerable pain. Burn injury is prevented by limiting the beam’s intensity and duration. It was developed by the US military and deployed to Afghanistan, but withdrawn without ever letting the Taliban feel the heat.

A long range acoustical device onboard ship
The long range acoustic device (LRAD) is a unidirectional combat loud speaker that uses intensified sound waves with similar effect. It has a metre-wide beam and only those in the line of fire receive the full excruciating blare, as the LRAD sends forth an audio assault of pain inducing tones that force attackers to cover their ears and let go of their weapons. 

Sweeping the beam across a crowd in a metachronal rhythm produces a similar effect to a Mexican wave. There’s also a ‘ghost battalion’ selection on the device which replicates the sound of warfare at a thousand times the decibels. Imagine being pursued by an LRAD blasting ABBA’s “Mama Mia‘...

Perhaps the most ingenious non-lethal weapon is the dazzle gun, or laser rifle, a man-portable piece that uses intense directed radiation to temporarily blind or disorient its target. Dazzlers have been used in Iraq to halt (but not kill) drivers who fail to stop at checkpoints manned by American soldiers.

Laser rifles temporarily blind their target
Could this be the way to defend America’s schools without bringing lethal weapons into the classroom? Would a dazzler have been effective in thwarting Adam Lanza’s attack on Sandy Hook? Could an LRAD have forced him to let go of his weapon?

It seems incongruous that in deterring America’s enemies, in far-flung failed states, the United States government is willing to consider non-lethal means, but in defending its own children, it’s an all-or-nothing debate about firearms. How is it that Somali pirates get more consideration than American citizens?

There is an alternative, and the US has the know how to invent it. Meantime, if you must continue with your “signature strikes”, Mr President, at least use them to target the mass murderers in your midst.

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