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Friday, April 25, 2008

No waking up from proliferation of 'nonlethal' weapons

April 25, 2008
Geoff Olson, Vancouver Courier

North America not far away from becoming Deadwood with stun guns

Several years ago, in his essay Shadow Dancing, the San-Francisco based tech writer Erik Davis wrote on how post 9/11 America had invaded his dream world.

"I have more than occasionally found myself half-awake at 3 a.m., facing hypnagogic bouts of fear and paranoia induced by current events. Sometimes these apocalyptic spectres slip into my dream life proper. Once I found myself outside of Berlin at night, on the side of some wet and nameless interstate. The city was hosting a gathering of national police forces from around the developed world, there to show off their latest tech. With a steel roar, a stream of the latest urban tanks careened out of an underpass, bulbous cartoon things festooned with the baroque weaponry of Japanese mecha and designed, clearly, to control domestic unrest. My god, I thought, it has begun."

Has it?

Last Saturday's Vancouver Sun headline, "Fare Prey," was sub-headed "Greater Vancouver transit cops tell fare cheats: comply with police or expect to be tasered." Asked if officers would continue with the practice of tasering non-violent fare evaders, Inspector Daniel Dureau of the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Police is quoted, "Absolutely. Absolutely. Yup."

Welcome to the new normal. With deaths and injuries climbing from Taser use across North America, it appears law enforcement agencies--including TransLink's paramilitary arm--feel emboldened to carry on with business as usual. Last November, the Vancouver Police Department said it was getting 70 more of the stun guns, in spite of the public outcry over a Polish immigrant's death at Vancouver International Airport.

And now we learn that several hours of surveillance footage recorded at YVR the night Robert Dziekanski was Tasered and died were "inadvertently erased" by the Canada Border Services Agency.

In our post-9/11 world, we're told we have to trade some of our freedom for security. Or is it security for freedom? I forget. And I'm not sure what fare evasion or a foreigner's desperate confusion has to do with any of this. I'm starting to feel like Erik Davis, tossing and turning in his sleep.

This story is bigger than excitable cops with new toys. A few weeks ago, I caught a 60 Minutes report on the newest entry into the U.S. military's arsenal of "non-lethal weapons," a microwave ray gun that can create localized hotspots hundreds of metres away. An enthusiastic CBS reporter offered himself as a guinea pig, standing in a test range and waiting for the cannon to fire. He grimaced and moved quickly out of the hotspot, smarting but uninjured.

Proponents of the microwave cannon tout it as a safe alternative to traditional weapons for crowd control, and hope to earmark it for trouble spots like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 60 Minutes episode continued with scenes of volunteers out in the field, playing the part of placard-carrying protestors. They scrambled the moment the 100,000 watt beam hit them. But something caught my eye; I hit the rewind to get a closer look at the wording on the protestors' placards. "World Peace." "Peace Not War." "Love for All."

Of course, placards on a test range aren't proof the Pentagon's ray gun is actually intended for domestic crowd control. But surely these field tests, filmed for the edification of higher-ups in the Pentagon, say something about the military mindset--if not the grunts testing the new tech, then the bigwigs in Washington's five-sided fear factory.

To make sense of all this, we need a bit of historical context. After the 1993 Waco debacle, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch signed a "memo of understanding," under which the Pentagon would share "dual use" non-lethal technology with domestic law enforcement agencies. What that meant is that over a decade ago, a path was smoothed so that more so-called "nonlethals" could find their way into the lockers of U.S. SWAT teams and police officers. With the "harmonization" of Canada and the U.S., it's probably no accident we now find ourselves in an electrified wild west, from Kelowna to Kansas. It's Deadwood with stun guns.

And now nonlethals are available for domestic use: Taser has short-range models for everyone from housewives to gangbangers, and even offers a Taser holster with space for a music player. You can't make this stuff up--but you can imagine the profits if there's ever an arms race in nonlethals between flatfoots and fare-evaders.

God knows where we'll be a decade hence with this nonsense, unless we start demanding some accountability from our supposed public servants. In his Shadow Dancing essay, Erik Davis had the option of curling up and going back to sleep. We may not have it so comfortable.

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