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Active denial

Of rayguns and ‘assault weapons’

The USAF yesterday showed off to the media its new raygun, the “Active Denial System”, which I had previously blogged about here. Don’t be confused by the name: rather than consisting of men shouting “NO!” through megaphones, the system is a weapon that irradiates human skin to create an intolerable burning sensation.

“This is one of the key technologies for the future,” said Marine Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the non-lethal weapons program at Quantico, Va., which helped develop the new weapon. “Non-lethal weapons are important for the escalation of force, especially in the environments our forces are operating in.”

Sci-fi dreamers who thought that “key technologies for the future” might include new ways to fight disease, maglev trains or interplanetary exploration obviously have a rose-tinted idea of the world to come. And what about this idea that the ADS and its ilk “are important for the escalation of force”? (Col Hymes clearly didn’t get the memo about avoiding the word “escalation”.) I suppose it means that currently, on the low end of the spectrum of “denial”, you can either shout at people or shoot them, if you are not physically close enough to them to take them indoors and start beating them up. The lack of any option between shouting at and shooting funny-looking distant people is perhaps a frustrating gap in an otherwise smooth continuum of “escalation of force” – shoot them with sidearms, shoot them with rifles, shoot them with missiles, et cetera. So the ADS fills that gap nicely.

Jack Shafer, editor at large of Slate, who this week wrote a very kind review of Unspeak and a follow-up article, wrote to make an excellent point:

“Active denial system” sounds like unspeak and a definition of unspeak.

A very nice observation. Unspeak is a system of denial, but not a passive system: it denies one thing while actively promulgating another view. It is indeed an “active denial system”.

In reponse to Shafer’s articles, Slate readers have also been offering examples of their own. One of the most well-reasoned came from antsi in the forum, who wrote about the term “assault weapon”:

“Assault rifle” describes a lightweight, fully automatic, medium-power carbine. This is a real term with an actual meaning.

“Assault weapon” was invented by gun control legislators to mean “any kind of firearm we want to ban this week.” The term also picks up additional loading from its intentional confounding with fully automatic assault rifles such as are used by the military. “Assault weapon” certainly does not refer to fully automatic weapons, since these were restricted under a 1934 federal law and any additional ban would have no effect. In many TV news stories about “assault weapons,” footage of fully automatic weapons is shown, adding to the public confusion about what kind of guns they are trying to ban.

The term “assault weapon” does carry an unspoken argument because it implies that there is no legitimate use for these firearms – no use at all other than “assaulting” someone. In fact, many of the firearms included on in the “banned lists” are designed for hunting or target competition. Others, particularly multi-shot shotguns, are particularly well suited to lawful home defense – but of course “defense weapon” doesn’t sound like something that needs to be banned right away.

You might want to interrogate the arguments bound up in antsi’s appeal to “lawful home defense”, which seeks to pre-empt any questions of legality and justification for “escalation of force”. On the other hand, the term “gun control” itself is Unspeak – it is not guns themselves that are out of control, gleefully marauding across America; and “control” is a more soothing way to say “regulation”, which is anathema to many. In any case, antsi’s unpacking of “assault weapon” seems cogent. Any kind of weapon may be used to “assault” someone: that potential is already analytically present in the very idea of a weapon. So “assault weapon” actively denies the possibility that a weapon might have legitimate non-assault uses; while “defense weapon” actively denies the possibility that people do in fact regularly attack other people with their guns. Perhaps the term “weapon” alone is the victim of verbal inflation, so that it no longer sounds scary enough on its own, and must be argumentatively enhanced.

The description of the “Active Denial System” as a “non-lethal weapon”, meanwhile, actively denies the possibility that the weapon in question might kill someone, which “non-lethal weapons” often do. You might not be completely reassured by the probabilistic statement of one airman to the AP about the new raygun:

There should be no collateral damage to this.

Actively denying what needs further to be cloaked in another term of Unspeak – “collateral damage” – this statement seems rather lonely and forlorn in the celebratory atmosphere of USAF’s media day. An event of “active denial” in many senses.

  1. 1  dsquared  January 26, 2007, 1:04 pm 

    I think “denial” in context, is “denial of access”; the idea being that the person with a microwave gun is the person who has the legitimate right to control access to a particular place and can accept or deny your request to be there.

  2. 2  Steven  January 26, 2007, 1:07 pm 

    Yes, it belongs in the existing category of “area denial weapons” – but I suppose the point is that most of them, like mines etc, are lamentably “passive”.

  3. 3  a very public sociologist  January 26, 2007, 2:50 pm 

    I wouldn’t like to think about the resources the US government have poured into this. What a shameful waste.

  4. 4  cat  January 26, 2007, 9:55 pm 

    The BBC’s report on the microwave weapon surprised me with its use of the phrases “non-lethal weapon” and “rubber bullets”, since rubber bullets are actually made of metal with a rubber coating and, as you point out, they have killed rather a lot of people.

  5. 5  C. Reaves  January 28, 2007, 4:06 pm 

    “…and “control” is a more soothing way to say “regulation”, which is anathema to many.”

    I’m sure that was the case originally, but “gun control” as a term has been deftly co-opted by the gun lobby as the new Great Satan, deposing “gun regulation” which is now merely a minor devil. As a result, gun control – with its faint whiff of totalitarian control – has become even more unspeak-able than the more legalistic gun regulation.

  6. 6  abb1  January 28, 2007, 10:02 pm 

    Microwaving people, huh. Cool. I sense an opportunity for a great videogame.

  7. 7  merkur  January 29, 2007, 10:01 am 

    Since they’re also developing a handheld version of this weapon, that videogame that will doubtless be played mainly by experts.

    Since there’s no chance of the weapon causing death (apparently), it can’t be considered torture to use it repeatedly on a man strapped to a chair with a bit in his mouth (see under “waterboarding”).

  8. 8  Steven  January 29, 2007, 6:54 pm 

    “gun control” as a term has been deftly co-opted by the gun lobby as the new Great Satan, deposing “gun regulation” which is now merely a minor devil

    That’s a very good point, C. Reaves. I suppose it is a kind of failed euphemism, since “control” can be talked up into a species of general totalitarianism.

    Meanwhile in other military-tech news, thanks to a reader for pointing out that the US military is also looking to develop a form of artificial ice for use in hot countries so that its enemies can’t run after US soldiers and shoot them. The name for this ice? The “Mobility Control System”, natch.

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