Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Secretary of the Air Force's "Stunning" Proposal

Secretary of the Air Force Mike Wynne suggested yesterday that before the U.S. military employs overseas any directed-energy “non-lethal weapons” that have been under development for decades that the weapons be used in the U.S. when crowds get out of control. His rationale is straightforward: by using these “beam” weapons domestically to restore public order – essentially a policing function – the rest of the world would see that the U.S. is not developing new and horrific ways to kill other people.

I know Mike Wynne from West Point where we were roommates for awhile. This is vintage Wynne, and so too will be any response to critics. Mike is fully able to defend himself.

From my perspective, however, I think the suggestion is ill-advised and will not defuse the potential public relations morass that will come the first time U.S. forces use “less lethal weapons” (LLW) that emit millimeter wave or laser beams directed at people. Why? Because, just as war plans do not survive the first shock of battle, the actual effect of LLWs, regardless of the intent of the gunner, depends in part on each individual hit by the LLW. Dead is dead no matter whether the cause is a bullet or a beam of electrons.

For instance, U.S. police departments employ “TASER” weapons, a form of “stun” gun that works by delivering an electric shock up to 50,000 volts. (TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, first developed in 1969.) The gun fires two electrodes connected by wires to the gun to a distance of 15 feet. The shock induces such a broad loss of muscle control that the victim (target) simply collapses. But if an individual who is hit by a TASER has a heart condition, the electric shock could be fatal.

Mike and I went through the Vietnam era. It was a time in which trust in government plummeted and every pronouncement of the administration raised suspicion among significant segments of the population. The dominant emotion was fear followed closely by anger, all of which boiled over during the summer of 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Mobilized National Guard troops (6,000) and special police trained in riot control procedures were very evident on the streets of Chicago. The first fatality occurred two days before the convention began. Every day brought more demonstrations, more marches, more arrests, more injuries. While most encounters involved police using LLWs of the day – batons and MACE – on the third day of the convention (August 28), one protest march was turned back by National Guard troops armed with .30 caliber machine guns.

As in 1968, fear and anger – and their exploitation for partisan political objectives – are very evident today. And again, as in 1968, it is the White House that is intent on spinning the interpretation of events first by exploiting fear of a “new” 9/11 by trying to link September 11, 2001 to the larger “war on terror” proclaimed by President Bush. As for the anger, like the fear it seems concentrated among Iraqis, with the overwhelming number calling for negotiations to set a timetable for withdrawing troops and ending the coalition occupation. The longer the White House delays negotiations on how and when to initiate and conclude redeployment, the greater the anger and the more problematic the chances for sustaining a functioning democracy – in both countries.

As for pre-deployment “field testing” LLWs on U.S. citizens, that’s a non-starter from inception. No one – especially protesters not engaged in wanton destruction and disorder – is to be used as a guinea pig by the government as was done in the post-World War II 1940s and 1950s. That is the height of disrespect and disregard for the dignity of individuals. In democracies, the majority may rule but not ruthlessly. Safeguarding minority rights makes a democracy.

As significant and as widespread as fear and anger may be today, they will only become worse if the U.S. military follows another Vietnam policy: pulling out of research “promising” new weapons or LLWs – in effect, turning Iraq into a “proving ground” and conveying a lack of respect for Iraqis.

It is bad enough that Bush keeps repeating that the U.S. fights terror abroad so that the country will not have to fight it at home. That reveals total insensitivity if not indifference to the views, interests, emotions, and inherent dignity of Iraqis whose homeland – years before Mike became Secretary of the Air Force – was, in the words of one Iraqi, turned into the world’s “flypaper for terror.”

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