An Eye For A Rubber Bullet: The Dangers Of Non-Lethal Weapons

Yves here. While I prefer to emphasize finance and economics posts over more political ones during the week, this one on the peril posed by so-called non-lethal weapons struck me as important.

Advocates of change such as Chris Hedges have called for more street-level activity, namely, protests, to force increasingly greedy elites to share more power and resources. The problem is that the authorities have already taken the view that the right to peaceful assembly is no longer operative in the US, and they are making investments in various new crowd suppression and containment tools, some of which are described below. It is worth noting, as the post “Everywhere Armutlu” described, that protestors have devised some effective low tech defensive tactics. But I suspect the next front in the increasingly downtrodden public versus increasingly oppressive authorities struggle is that some members of the disaffected public will start sabotaging infrastructure. And with a lot of complex and fragile infrastructure to have at, the elites might find the cost to be higher than they had expected.

By Don Quijones, a freelance writer and translator based in Barcelona, Spain whose blog, Raging Bull-Shit, is a modest attempt to challenge some of the wishful thinking and scrub away the lathers of soft soap peddled by our political and business leaders and their loyal mainstream media. Cross posted from Testosterone Pit

In the early evening of November 14, 2012, Ester Quintana, a 42-year old Barcelona resident, was making her way home after taking part with friends in a demonstration to mark that day’s general strike.

As she made her way past riot police vans parked in a narrow street just off Paseo de Gracia, one of Barcelona’s busiest thoroughfares, Quintana was hit full-force in the face by what was almost certainly a rubber projectile shot by an officer of the Catalonian police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.

Quintana was rushed to hospital but would ultimately lose her left eye, leaving in its place a deep, dark socket of raw scar tissue (to see an image, click here). She also suffered several bone fractures around the eye socket as well as serious damage to her cheekbone, jaw, nose and mouth.

In the aftermath of the incident, the Mossos d’Esquadra and Catalonia’s Regional Council of Interior predictably closed rank, denying all allegations of any involvement in Quintana’s injury. To date, they have altered their story at least five or six times and continue to deny that rubber bullets were fired at the scene of the incident, despite clear video evidence to the contrary.

A Chequered History

Pioneered by the British Ministry of Defence for use against rioters in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, rubber bullets have had a chequered history. Ostensibly intended to be fired at the ground so that the round bounces up and hits the target, causing pain but not injury, rubber bullets are frequently abused by police forces which often prefer to aim directly at protestors.

Between 1970 and 2005 about 125,000 rubber and plastic bullets were fired in Northern Ireland, causing at least 17 deaths. Indeed, in 2013 U.K. Ministry of Defence papers declassified from 1977 revealed that it was well aware that rubber bullets were more dangerous than was publicly disclosed. The papers stated rubber bullets were tested “in a shorter time than was ideal,” that they “could be lethal” and that they “could and did cause serious injuries.”

The disclosure hasn’t stopped Spanish, Greek and Portuguese authorities from continuing to advocate their deployment in public order incidents, despite the fact that their use is prohibited by almost all other EU member states. And the more they’re used the longer the list of victims grows. According to the organization “Stop Balas de Goma” (Stop Rubber Bullets), in Catalonia alone eight people have lost an eye to a rubber bullet in the last four years.

A Booming Industry

Rubber bullets are one of a rapidly growing arsenal of “non-lethal” weapons being deployed by recession-hit governments across the globe. In Spain, government spending on anti-riot material and equipment, including rubber bullets, bullet-proof shields and tear gas canisters, has grown by a staggering 1,780 percent just in last year, from 173,670 euros in 2012 to 3.26 million in 2013.

In the Anglo-Saxon world the non-lethal weapon du jour is the taser gun, which, according to Amnesty International, has claimed the lives of close to 450 people worldwide since 2001. As the Australian ethicist Stephen Coleman points out, a large part of the problem with “non-lethal” weapons such as tasers is that while they are ostensibly meant as an alternative to much deadlier firearms, they are being routinely used to deal with a whole range of other problems. Not only are they being deployed to neutralise violent or potentially violent situations, but they are also being used to punish people who are simply being passively non-compliant.

By far the worst cases of taser abuse have taken place in the U.S., where victims have included a 14-year old girl who was tasered in the head after daring to run away from a police chief, a 6-year old boy who was given a 500-volt jolt at his elementary school and an 86-year old disabled woman in her bed who, according to the police report, took up (I kid you not) “a more threatening position in her bed.”

Arguably the most egregious legacy of the taser revolution is that police no longer try to solve a problem through dialogue, but instead “loose the juice”, and ask questions later — assuming, that is, there is a later for the taser victim.

Non-Lethal Weapons in Combat

Besides being used by riot and civilian police units, non-lethal weapons are also finding traction on the battle field. Conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia offer an ideal testing ground for many of the latest weaponry to come off the conveyor belt. After all, non-lethal weapons represent a fast-growing multi-billion dollar business for military contractors. According to the report Non-Lethal Weapons: Technologies and Global Market 2012-2020, published by Homeland Security Research, the Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) market is forecast to emerge as a key domain for asymmetric warfare and law enforcement technology providers:

Governments worldwide have undoubtedly understood the function of non-lethal weapons following lessons learned in Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Unforeseen street riots and mass demonstrations over the last decade have revealed the loopholes in the security dogma of the 21st century.

There is a growing demand from combatant commanders, law enforcement officers and political establishments for NLW capabilities. This demand is driven by the need to help them win the hearts and minds of the non-combatant population and prevent world outcry and media attention due to non-combatant casualties. As a result, many governments have entered into non-lethal weapons R&D and procurement dedicated to the full spectrum of public safety, law enforcement, crowd control and asymmetric warfare.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been test-running the Orwellian-sounding Active Denial System (ADS), or what U.S. journalists have more fittingly dubbed the “Pain Ray”. Mounted on a truck or hummer, the ADS is a metal dish that emits electro-magnetic waves. Anyone caught within its 500-metre radius will feel as if they are being burnt alive and will quickly evacuate the area. According to the U.S. military, the rays, which only penetrate the very top layer of people’s skin — is perfectly safe. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t believe the Pentagon’s word?

According to Coleman, N-L weapons pose a very serious health risk, especially in light of the indiscriminate way they are often used. A perfect case in point is the Dubrovka Theater Siege in Moscow in 2002, in which Chechen terrorists took over 900 members of the audience hostage. In an attempt to free the hostages, Russian special forces stormed the theater, pumping the entire edifice full of anaesthetic gas 80 times stronger than morphine. While the gas may have incapacitated all 40 of the hostage takers, allowing the special forces to ruthlessly shoot each and every one of them in the head unchallenged, about 130 hostages (including nine foreigners) died due to adverse reactions to the gas.

Collective Punishment

Besides the clear dangers they pose to human health, non-lethal weapons arguably pose an even graver threat to the basic notion of civil engagement that underpins any system of participatory democracy. The rights of assembly and peaceful protest are — and must remain — fundamental pillars of any self-respecting democracy (which obviously excludes Spain these days). However, the use of non-lethal weapons to police public demonstrations risks enshrining a collective punishment approach to public order policing which would, in turn, effectively mean the de-facto criminalisation of virtually all forms of political or social protest.

In an interview last year with the Spanish documentary series Salvados, Sergi Pla, the former chief of the Mossos d’Esquadra’s riot brigade who was forced to resign in the wake of Quintana’s shooting, delivered an unveiled threat to all protestors, warning that anyone choosing to take part in a demonstration must “assume all the risks involved, regardless of whether they’re resisting actively or passively.”

As Quintana herself said in an interview with the Catalan newspaper El Periodico, “they (the police and government) want people to be afraid of protesting. The social protest movement is growing stronger and stronger and they (the police and government) seek to quash it.”

While “non-lethal”, or better put “less lethal”, weapons may offer police forces and governments the enticing prospect of enhanced social control — especially at a time when economic and political forces are alienating ever-growing ranks of society — they would do well to remember the following cautionary words from John F Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful protest impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

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  1. LifelongLib

    Even if tasers in themselves were completely harmless (they aren’t) a person can be seriously injured or killed simply from falling to the ground. As the Moscow theater event showed, the amount of anesthetic gas needed to immobilize healthy young adults (i.e. most terrorists) can be deadly to children, older people, or anyone with health problems. I don’t imagine it would be safe to be in a crowd of people fleeing a pain ray either. There probably is no such thing as a non-lethal weapon.

    1. Xelcho

      Your raise a great point, namely:

      How on earth could the Russians, (1)not have consulted even the most poorly qualified anesthesiologist to verify that the “plan” to gas was a grade A FAIL?

      (2) Assassinate the “hostage takers” without even a pretense of a trial?…Wait this is Russia, where the law is optional. :(

      1. crazy canuck

        re #2: Russia is very comfortable with killing people who take up arms against the state (pirates, terrorists, secessionists). Not saying Russia’s actions are defensible all or even most of the time, but the principle that terrorists are military and not criminal enemies can be coherently argued. (note to self-styled black blockistes: do not declare your intention to smash the state then cry foul when the state smashes you).

        re #1: The decision to use (fentanyl?) gas was the least bad option (besides giving the hostage-takers everything they demanded and hoping they didn’t kill everyone anyway), as the hostage takers had wired the place to explode in the event of a raid.

        General lesson: Lots of bad things are done by and to Russia. Sigh.

  2. from Mexico

    Quijones quotes the former head of the Spanish police state as saying:

    anyone choosing to take part in a demonstration must “assume all the risks involved, regardless of whether they’re resisting actively or passively.”

    It’s amazing how some things never change:

    we ask and require you that you…acknowledge…King and Queen Doña Juana…as superiors and lords and kings of these islands and this Tierra-firme…

    But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.
    –THE REQUERIMIENTO, read by Spanish military forces to assert their sovereignty (a dominating control ) over the Americas. Written by Council of Castile jurist Juan López de Palacios Rubios in 1513

      1. F. Beard

        Oh come on. The Hebrews were commanded to take the strictly delineated territory God gave them but ONLY that territory. And nowhere does the Bible command Christians to take ANY territory.

        Gospel means “good news.” Obviously the Spaniards were not good news for the natives of South America so obviously they were DISCREDITING the Gospel, not spreading it peacefully.

        1. diptherio

          Well, that territory was already occupied, iirc, and the good Lord commanded the Jews to go in there anyway and smite them all.

          But you’re right, the Requiremento can’t be laid at the feet of any metaphysical deity, but only those humans who wrote it. Credit where credit is due.

          1. from Mexico

            Well actually the Requerimiento, elaborated in Christian thought, was quite benign in comparison to the alternate proposal, elaborated in Greco-Roman thought, proposed to deal with the Indians.

            The alternate proposal held that the Indians weren’t even human beings, and thus could be exterminated, kept and enslaved just like animals would be.

            This paper explains, but unfortunately is written in Spanish:

            All the people of the world are men: The great debate between Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490-1573)


          2. F. Beard

            Well, that territory was already occupied, diptherio

            Yep and prime, well developed real estate it was, “flowing with milk and honey.”

            and the good Lord commanded the Jews to go in there anyway and smite them all.

            Well the natives did have the option of fleeing and the smiting did spare the children in some cases, if I recall correctly. But in other cases, everybody and everything including valuable cattle and even gold and silver were destroyed.

            And interesting case is the Gibeonites who tricked the invading Hebrews into thinking they did not live in the area and thus weren’t subject to destruction. The Hebrews were pissed they had been tricked into making a treaty with the Gibeonites but nevertheless kept their word. See Joshua 9:3-27 if interested.

            Later, four of Saul’s sons broke the treaty and the Lord saw to it that they were killed and hanged for doing so.

            1. F. Beard

              Ooops! It was two of Saul’s sons and five of his grandsons that were hanged and it’s not clear to me they were even guilty with Saul of breaking the treaty.

              So much for trusting my memory when it comes to Scripture.

              To add to the sad story, the mother of the two sons spent days or weeks preventing birds from eating the seven hanging bodies until they were later buried. See 2 Samuel 21 for the story.

          3. Yonatan

            diptherio wrote:

            But you’re right, the Requiremento can’t be laid at the feet of any metaphysical deity, but only those humans who wrote it.

            Also known as: “god was created in Man’s image” (with emphasis on the Man)

        2. charles sereno

          @ F. Beard: Just curious. Since you seem to have as direct a communication with God as anyone, has He assigned you a piece of territory, but only that territory?

            1. F. Beard

              Don’t worry, assuming you survive to enjoy it, you’ll have great government.

              As for me, I doubt I’ll be in charge of much, if anything, assuming I survive, which I don’t necessarily do.

  3. Skeptic

    If I have access to personal data on activists, like credit card, real estate, student loan, marriage, criminal and civil litigation, education, etc., I have a lot to work with in terms of intimidating and threatening people. Add to that a person’s family data and I can add them to the list of possible ways to intimidate. Most of the institutions who hold these databases have proven in the past their willingness to cooperate with government if they are not government themselves.

    So, for example, I am a 29 year old activist with credit card balances of $5000, a mortgage that is 3 months in arrears, a divorce in the courts, a DUI in the courts. My father works for the federal Department of Education which is cutting back and my mother works for Walmart.

    So, there is a lot to work with there. Pressure on the credit cards, foreclose on the house, fiddle with divorce, convict harshly on the DUI. Dump the father and mother and screw them on termination rights/benefits. Just do this to a few EXAMPLES and folks get the message. Also, many other ways to F### over people when you have their personal data and that of their friends and family. Ask the Palestinians.

    So, something like this might just be what Total Information Awareness (NSA) is really all about.

    In connection with that and computers, this is all laid out in IBM and The Holocaust. Of course, in those days the technology was primitive. Today, we can get some real zing into the system. Thus it has been a Totalitarian Wet Dream of the neo-cons to build a more sophisticated version of the primitive system the Nazis used.

    “IBM and the Holocaust is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling shocker—a million copies in print—detailing IBM’s conscious co-planning and co-organizing of the Holocaust for the Nazis, all micromanaged by its president Thomas J Watson from New York and Paris. This Expanded Edition offers 37 pages of previous unpublished documents, pictures, internal company correspondence, and other archival materials to produce an even more explosive volume. Originally published to extraordinary praise in 2001, this provocative, award-winning international bestseller has stood the test of time as it chronicles the story of IBM’s strategic alliance with Nazi Germany. IBM and the Holocaust provides nothing less than a chilling investigation into corporate complicity. Edwin Black’s monumental research exposes how IBM and its subsidiaries helped create enabling technologies for the Nazis, step-by-step, from the identification and cataloging programs of the 1930s to the selections of the 1940s.”

    The ultimate question raised: is one of the downsides of computer technology, the complete loss of privacy, democracy and freedom?

    1. from Mexico

      Skeptic says:

      So, something like this might just be what Total Information Awareness (NSA) is really all about.

      That is certainly a far more plausible explanation for why such vast sums of money are being spent on the surveillance and security state than the official one: the “War on Terrorism.”

    2. from Mexico

      Skeptic said:

      The ultimate question raised: is one of the downsides of computer technology, the complete loss of privacy, democracy and freedom?

      Gun powder, the printing press, sailing vessels, new farming techniques, carbon energy — technological advances have revolutionized society in ways that would have never been imagined.

    3. vox populi

      “So, something like this might just be what Total Information Awareness (NSA) is really all about.”

      Yes, ruining your adversaries and the flow of the dough. The surveillance state represents trillions in profits for its beneficiaries. The War on Terrorism is a war on the citizenry, a great transfer of wealth from the public treasury to war and surveillance profiteers. Is al-Qaida a phone answering machine in Dick Cheney’s basement?

    4. hunkerdown

      Computers just do what they’re told and follow the rules, with straightforward opportunities for controlled action at a distance. If anything, there is more citizen influence in the state of the system (the term “democracy” is a meaningless feel-good word as you’ve used it) within most computers than within civilization. Countermeasures against such control exist but are only used where it matters.

      This is why “hackers” get more jail time than rapists: the ability to influence power is the exclusive prerogative of the designated winners.

  4. petridish

    Trying to get a picture in my head of the guy who makes himself a lunch, kisses the wife and kids goodbye and goes off to work at the rubber bullet factory so that his family can have a better life than he had.

    Or the brilliant kid, the first in his family to go to college. He studies hard, graduates in engineering with honors and bootstraps his way to his very own “pain ray” business.

    Can’t do it. Too twisted.

    (Thanks for the auto bold, by the way. Considering the subject of the post, it works.)

      1. petridish

        No apology necessary, Yves. I really meant it. This kind of crap makes me want to SCREAM.

  5. Steve Baker

    We don’t hear much about Blacklisting in today’s context. That’s always been an effective non-lethal weapon, but theres nothing like images of truncheons and pell mell riot control to initiate postin’. ‘Boycott banks, don’t buy what they’re selling’ – these things are superior “attacks”.

  6. Ottawa

    Rubber bullets, tasers, or high-tech surveillance/intercepts are used because they exist and they work. Technique has its own momentum.

  7. David

    Yves: “…But I suspect the next front in the increasingly downtrodden public versus increasingly oppressive authorities struggle is that some members of the disaffected public will start sabotaging infrastructure. And with a lot of complex and fragile infrastructure to have at, the elites might find the cost to be higher than they had expected.”

    This is exactly what happened in South Africa in the early 60’s when for similar reasons, the ANC started it sabotage campaign.

  8. Chris Rogers

    I’m not too sure why posters are getting hot under the collar about the States use of non-lethal force, I’d be more concerned at the fact, particularly in the USA, of the State’s intent to use lethal force, i.e., either out of a barrel of a gun, or, via the use of drones.

    What’s interesting in the US is the fact that numerous Federal and State departments have been stocking up on ‘Dumb Dumb’ bullets – we should be asking ourselves why is this, and what possible use can they have for them, apart from the obvious, which is genocide.

    As for my own wonderful nation, the UK, well given we are not allowed access to guns, never mind knives over a certain size, its rather difficult to ‘push back’ against the State – that said, my masters are so stupid, something to do with inbreeding, that they even cut funding too the very forces they’ll be calling upon when the shit finally hits the ceiling – indeed, they had to hold back from the last London riots in 2010, and that was peanuts compared to what you can expect once the populace wales up and smells the coffee.

    1. F. Beard

      Well, I don’t wish to play Devil’s Advocate (lest he put me on a retainer, like, for instance, well, never mind) but dum-dums are designed to expend their energy quickly in a body lest they punch through and kill or wound someone else.

      1. Yonatan

        Wrong: they are intended to cause maximal internal damage to the victim, greatly increasing the cost and complexity of any medical treatment should the victim survive.

      2. Beppo

        Calling hollowpoint bullets dum-dum is a bit silly and archaic. They are used because they kill people much more effectively than solid core bullets. It’s very simple.

        Genocide? Is quite fucking laughable, you cant extract rents from dead people.

        1. hunkerdown

          Yeah, why would they want to cause a labor shortage when that led to the end of feudalism last time?

          Well, the market economy is a game. Why would you assume that the bulk of workers would still be in the game as (effective) players rather than as (effective) chattel?

  9. killben

    Highly unlikely anything worthwhile will result when Governments are themselves the perpetuators.

    Next question I would ask is… Can the public use Non-Lethal weapons legally?

    If yes, then the solution would be to use the N-L weapons in public protests (use a thick Mask — protects your identity and face) and since the public can easily outnumber the police, if the police starts using the weapons at least the public can retaliate

  10. steelhead23

    It is posts like this that places this blog prominently on my favorites bar. Yes, this is not an economics post. It is much more important than that. The post itself is erudite and frightening, but the comments are amazing. Whoever this From Mexico person is, they possess a knowledge of history that is amazing and enlightening. It was completely unknown to me the debate about the humanity of those indigent to the New World. The lessen here should be that when we sanction violence, like war, the warrior is apt to lose his humanity with results those in authority are ashamed to acknowledge (Abu Ghraib?).

    Yes, there are terrible prices being paid for assertions of a right to assemble, our right to have our grievances heard. There exists and elitist aristocracy that hires those willing to assert authority through violence to “pacify” we villagers. Yet, protest we must. We must face down the abusers of our rights, lest our children matriculate into all-on slavery. Bring back Occupy!

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “Yes, this is not an economics post.”

      These are methods of control which have been used against protesters who are ultimately arguing over economic conditions, and many of these “non-lethal” devices are as John McCain would say “boondoggles” for the soul purpose of defrauding the American public. What is the mark up on these devices because they are being paid for under the fog of war?

      Metal detectors were around before Columbine, but after Columbine, all the schools had to have them. Someone made a fortune turning our schools into police states and cutting after school programs to pay for the detectors.

      1. petridish

        Not sure about metal detectors, but Michael Chertoff made a chunk of change on airport x-ray machines after the underwear bomber made his way onto an international flight to Detroit without a passport. Just for good measure, it happened on Christmas Day. (Christmas made it REALLY scary.)

      2. petridish

        PS. Chertoff was a big-time lobbyist for the manufacturer of the x-ray machines. Word has it that he also lobbied for the oncologist’s union.

        OK, I made that last part up. I don’t think oncologists have a union.

  11. The Dank Sizzler

    i’m totally in accord with everything in this article except for the unnecessary scorn for the Russian security forces during the Moscow theater seige. Considering how many bombs the hostage-takers had, there was really nothing else that they could’ve done.

    it does the rest of your article a disservice to implicitly compare that incident to the repression of political demonstrations (though, granted, it’s almost certainly the exact same entities repressing Russian protests)

  12. azcaclark

    They ought to be careful. There was a recent post on homemade weapons in Syria. Desperate or highly motivated people can make their own weapons of sabotage existing systems. Just think of all the unemployed tech savy new college graduates being hounded by student loan collectors. What’s to stop them from hacking the government’s systems. All these lethal and nonlethal systems can be hacked and turned against the government.

    What happens when the drones are hacked and turned against government troops or private contractors?

  13. Dr Duh

    Tell me again why civilian disarmament is a good idea?

    Why we should trust the government with a complete monopoly on the use of force?

    Why centralizing control over medicine and undermining the moral authority of physicians is going to work out for the best?

    I’m with Taleb, we should build anti-fragile systems in which power and decision making are widely distributed.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      If you think armed civilians are effective versus the State, you are smoking something very very strong. We’ve had a police state put in place while your armed citizens sat on their asses and let it happen, and in the meantime also killed way more of themselves and friends and family members than the people they claim to be worried about.

  14. ChrisPacific

    One person died in Boston during the World Series celebration in 2004 in similar circumstances. Look up Victoria Snelgrove.

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