Saturday, April 16, 2005

Nazi “doctors” redux: implements of torture of our very own

Pulsed energy projectile weapons: “The US military is funding development of a weapon that delivers a bout of excruciating pain from up to 2 kilometres away. [Contracts between the Office of Naval Research and two public universities in Florida aim to determine] ‘optimal pulse parameters to evoke peak nociceptor activation’ - in other words, cause the maximum pain possible.” (1) Pain is not the only effect though. These weapons also produce “a dramatic flash, nearly deafening sound, and substantial kinetic impact...lesions, temporary paralysis, choking, fibrillation and disorientation...and someone hit in the eye could be blinded [and the] shock wave would be like having a grenade go off in your eye socket.” (2)

Microwave weapons: “...Active Denial System basically a dish that fires a beam of 95 GHz microwaves at a crowd, heating people’s skin...” (2)

Wireless electric stun weapons: “Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe... the $9000 Close Quarters Shock Rifle [...] projects an ionised gas, or plasma, towards the target, producing a conducting channel. It will also interfere with electronic ignition systems and stop vehicles. ‘We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep,’ claims [Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS)] president Peter Bitar... [It] has a range of only 3 metres, but an operator can debilitate multiple targets by sweeping it across them... XADS is also planning a more advanced weapon which it hopes will have a range of 100 metres or more. Instead of firing ionised gas, it will probably use a powerful laser to ionise the air itself.” (3)

In the news about a decade ago was a report of extended torture of several US DEA agents by drug traffickers in Mexico. With evident, and justified, horror, the news writer noted that a medical doctor had been involved, to ensure that the pain inflicted was as severe as possible, and also to prevent the victims from lapsing into unconsciousness. As I recall, he utilized research that had been done on endorphins and pain, in order to prevent any endogenous pain relief from interfering with the torturers’ intent, repeatedly injecting drugs to rouse their victims whenever they lost consciousness. Some stories are permanently seared into one’s daily awareness, as this story has been for me. Perhaps it is because I have experienced (naturally-caused) pain severe enough to cause unconsciousness, allowing me to know something about unendurable pain, that has allowed my horror at this story to be undimmed to this day, but I think it should be horrifying to any decent person.

Perhaps it was the mention of the participation in this pain-maximizing research by Brian Cooper, an expert in dental pain at University of Florida (1) that first triggered my revulsion. Or, perhaps it was a dystopic vision of a peaceful anti-war demonstration being punished with one of these new pain weapons (from a mile away!), or, maybe it just plain infuriates me that scientists who participate in such a thing are still able to sleep at night.

Sure, anyone who wants to torture people will find a way. But to torture at a distance, non-selectively, invisibly, leaving no evidence? Is this how we want to spend our hard-earned money? Is this what we want our grad students and scientists and public universities to endeavor to create? Do we even trust our leaders to limit their use of these torture devices to just the bad guys? Could anyone still be that naïve? Is the infliction of maximal pain on anyone something any of us wants to be done in our name? Researchers also need to think long and hard about the end uses of their work, because much as they might wish otherwise, scientific research just isn’t as objective or value-free as they might wish. The argument that “if I don’t do it, someone else will” is pitifully weak, both ethically and morally.

Will someone please awaken me from this nightmare?

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(1) “Maximum pain is aim of new US weapon,” by David Hambling. NewScientist, March 5, 2005.

(2) “Star wars hits the streets,” by David Hambling. NewScientist, October 12, 2002.

(3) “Stun weapons to target crowds,” by David Hambling. NewScientist, June 19, 2004.

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