The future of heat-beaming weapons.
The shift from hardware to software, from matter to energy, can do more than control the unpredictability of weapons. It can control the unpredictability of the people who fire them. Early nonlethal devices, such as rubber bullets and Mace, often caused injuries due to abuse by hotheads. When the pain beam was initially being developed, somebody accidentally fired it on a high setting, inflicting a second-degree burn. The designers responded by programming limits on the beam's power and duration.
Years of work have gone into making the beam safe. It's been tested thousands of times on 600 volunteers. It's been reviewed and revised by a human-effects review board, a human-effects advisory panel, and military surgeons general. It's been tested for effects on skin cancer, fertility, jewelry, and drunks. The results have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Never has an organization licensed to kill jumped through so many hoops to make sure nobody gets injured.
The nonlethal weapons program is a pacifist's dream. Its "vehicle lightweight arresting devices" are built to stop cars with minimal damage, allowing minor injuries only if you're "not wearing a seatbelt." Its "acoustic hailing devices" are engineered to deliver sound waves "below Occupational Safety and Health Administration hearing limits for prolonged exposure." Its founding directive pledges to avoid environmental damage. Even the less lethal launcher projectiles are "non-toxic."
But the ability to inflict pain without injury doesn't just make injury less necessary. It makes pain more essential to military operations—and easier to inflict. To achieve the desired "repel effect," I have to make you suffer. Knowing that your agony will be brief and leave no physical damage makes the weapon easier to fire. It's almost as though, like the imagined flames on the AP reporter's jacket, your pain isn't real.
That's the metaphysical gap nonlethal energy weapons exploit. The rain of pain falls mainly in the brain. The long-range acoustic device, for instance, "can target narrow sound beams at excruciating decibel levels, but below the threshold of hearing damage," according to a military account of a presentation by its project manager. Four months ago, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation to prosecute torture, defined as intentional infliction of "serious physical or mental pain or suffering." But that rule applies only in captivity. On the street, pain administration won't be a crime. It'll be a policy.
Two weeks from now, military leaders will convene in London to discuss the pain beam and the next generation of directed-energy weapons, including microwaves and lasers. Law enforcement agencies are interested. Raytheon is already advertising the technology for commercial applications. We're even developing a "personnel halting and stimulation response" system—yes, a PHaSR—to stun targets instead of killing them. But don't worry, nobody will get hurt. Sort of.
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.