Ethics / Politics / Science

Torture in the US?

File:Active Denial System Humvee.jpg

According to a report in “New Scientist”, a weapon has been developed that is non-lethal and does not cause severe injury, but can be used to inflict unbearable pain, see Pain ray: The US military’s new agony beam weapon – health – 16 May 2013 – New Scientist.

The weapon produces a ray of short wavelength electromagnetic waves (millimeter waves) that cause the outer layer of skin to heat up. The article in New Scientist describes the experience of being hit by this ray like this:

Those who have been at the wrong end of the beam report that the pain is impossible to resist. “You might think you can withstand getting blasted. Your body disagrees quite strongly,” says Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for Wiredmagazine’s blog, Danger Room. He stood in the beam at an event arranged for the media last year. “One second my shoulder and upper chest were at a crisp, early-spring outdoor temperature on a Virginia field. Literally the next second, they felt like they were roasted, with what can be likened to a super-hot tingling feeling. The sensation causes your nerves to take control of your feeble consciousness, so it wasn’t like I thought getting out of the way of the beam was a good idea – I did what my body told me to do.” There’s also little chance of shielding yourself; the waves penetrate clothing.

Looking up “Torture” on Wikipedia yields the following definition: “Torture is the practice or act of deliberately inflicting severe physical pain and possibly injury on a person”. So this weapon meets this definition of torture, even if no lasting damage is caused.

What does a democratic state (assuming the U.S. is one) under the rule of law whose president declared that “the U.S. will not torture” (if I remember that speech correctly)  want to do with such a weapon? quotes Marine Col. Tracy Tafolla, director of the US DoD Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate saying: “It could be used across the military spectrum of operations, perimeter security, crowd control, entry control points. You name it. I think our forces will figure out the many different applications that it would have”.

So, one of the uses is “crowd control”. Now, what is a crowd, in a democratic state? It is a group of citizens. Using such a weapon on a crowd means torturing citizens in order to force them to do something they do not want to do. In a state in which torture is illegal (assuming this is the case in the U.S.) this should be illegal. Using such a weapon abroad for “crowd control” would mean torturing citizens of another state, which would be just as illegal. Delivering such weapons to non-democratic governments, on the other hand, would mean equipping tyrants with an instrument of mass torture (I assume the U.S. government would not do that). That would be a crime, by any moral standards. So what is this type of weapon produced for?

According to an announcement made by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on August 20, 2010, (see  its intending to use this technology on prisoners in the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles, stating its intent to use it in “operational evaluation” in situations such as breaking up prisoner fights. In this context, the system is called “Assault Intervention System”.

If using such a device is torture, that would make its use in such circumstances illegal (assuming that torture must not be used in the U.S.). Viewed from that perspective, the announcement or the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department looks strange. Should we not assume that human rights are not violated in prisons in the U.S.?

If I where an American, I would consider asking the government critical questions. I would ask them to ban the use and further development of such a system. In my country, using torture is a violation of the constitution. I don’t know if it is according to the constitution of the U.S., but if it is, Americans should appeal to the supreme court to declare such weapons illegal. “Crowd control” or “Assault Intervention” using lethal weapons is murder. If weapons for pain infliction are used for such purposes, it is torture. The way to control crowds in a democracy is good government so that violent crowds don’t form. People normally don’t want to join a violent crowd. In a democracy, they can represent their interests and opinions with peaceful means, so violence is not necessary.

Assuming that the U.S. is a lawful democracy, why should they develop such weapons. Such a weapon is an instrument of exerting power by torture. Its purpose is to force something on people. In a democracy, the people, the citizens, are the sovereign of the state. They are the state. Such a weapon has no place inside a democracy (and giving it to the leaders of non-democracies would be a crime). Assuming the U.S. is a lawful democracy, seeing such a system being developed and being tested there looks strange, to say the least. I would not be astonished if a state like North Korea developed such a system, but the U.S.A.?

Now, I am a European, looking at these things from the outside. I might misunderstand things completely from the distance, looking at them from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The questions I am asking and the assumptions I am making are probably stupid and naive. Probably everything is fine, or is it?

(The picture is from

8 thoughts on “Torture in the US?

  1. No need to worry, I’m sure it’ll just be used in airports by highly trained TSA officials for passengers who refuse to take off their shoes.

  2. Hi Nannus, Noam Chomsky discets US foreign policy very well, there’s a long and depressing string of behaviour that defies the US as a democracy.

    • I know 😦 That is the reason why I am asking “stupid questions” 🙂
      I disagree with Chomsky on linguistics and the philosophy of mind, but I appreciate him as a political intellectual.
      I see the US having a long tradition of non-democratic behavior, actually going back all the way to its foundation. The US constitution was a compromise between different groups who did not have much in common and some of which where very undemocratic (e.g. the gentry of Virginia and the slaving cotton farmers of the south). The resulting constitution with the “winner takes all” principle in the voting system makes political change very difficult and favors the development of gentry-like groups holding most power.
      However, while there was a strong civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, there seems to be an erosion of civil rights in the US today. Basic principles of a lawful state are undermined and people are taking it with an astonishing degree of disinterest. There is, it seems to me, not much left of critical and investigative journalism either. I might be wrong, but I have the impression that people are either afraid to say anything or they have actually fallen prey to nationalistic ideology. When I recently wrote about the topic of “Freedom or Security” on this blog, most reactions came from outside the US.

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