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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

First the Taser, Now the “Pain Ray”?

Better crowd control through high technology.

Mike Booen, vice president of Raytheon’s advanced security and directed energy systems, has “a vision”: “We want to get to the point where it is a hand-held device.”

“It” is the assault intervention device (AID). Development in that direction is underway.

An AID is a pain-delivery device that will be soon tested on “unruly” inmates at the sheriff’s detention facility in Castaic, California, where an inmate brawl broke out late August, injuring two officers. The currently 600-pound, seven-foot device fires a directed beam of millimeter waves that penetrate 1/64th of an inch into the skin — about four times the thickness of a piece of paper — where pain receptors are located. The invisible beam reportedly causes an “unbearable burning sensation” that incapacitates the target but stops immediately once the AID is turned off. The “pain ray” is being provided free of charge to the sheriff’s department courtesy of a program through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Along with Pennsylvania State University, the NIJ will be monitoring the “test case.” Presumably, if the it is successful the devices will be installed in other prisons.

According to Raytheon and its targeted market of corrections officers, the AID causes no lasting damage. (Taser International makes similar claims about its product despite the growing list of deaths related to Taser use by law enforcement.)

The U.S. military may disagree with Raytheon’s claim.

Deployed in Iraq

In July 2005 the Department of Defense announced that “active denial technology” (ADT) would be deployed to Iraq for crowd control by the U.S. military. Fifteen vehicles equipped to emit millimeter-wave electromagnetic energy would be able “to stop, deter and turn back an advancing adversary from relatively long range” without causing injury.

ADTs and AIDs are two expressions of the same technology. What exactly does the technology do? Traveling at the speed of light, an emitted beam within seconds can heat the skin to 130° F; at approximately 122 F the pain reflex makes people pull away and thus disperse. They are not burned, it is claimed, because of the shallow penetration, short time span of the beam (three seconds), and the low energy levels employed.

Yet on November 7, 2007, Wired reported, “Seven months after an airman was burned in a test of the nonlethal heat beam, the Air Force has released a heavily redacted version of the mishap report…. The military has bent over backwards to demonstrate to the public that the Active Denial System (ADS) … is a well-tested nonlethal weapon, and not a scary microwave weapon with unknown health effects…. That’s why the Air Force Safety Center’s decision to sanitize the report is a big setback.”

Indeed, many aspects of the ADT program are classified and impossible to verify. Questions simply remain unanswered. An example: The design range of the weapon is 700 yards; if victims at half that range receive three to four times the power, would they also be unharmed? (Raytheon takes a similar nondisclosure stand on many aspects of the AIDs, appealing to its need to maintain industrial secrets; for example, the product data sheet does not specify the power output.)

Ultimately, the military dropped its plans to use the ADT. In July Wired reported that the single system deployed to Afghanistan was recalled without being used once. An explanation from the military of why it abandoned the multimillion dollar devices has not been forthcoming.

ACLU on the Scene

Happily, a backlash against the use of AIDs in the prison system is growing, and information is becoming somewhat more accessible. The American Civil Liberties Union has shed more light on the Air Force incident. Apparently “a miscalibration of the device’s power setting … caused five airmen in its path to suffer lasting burns, including one whose injuries were so severe that he was airlifted to an off-base burn treatment center.” Moreover the ACLU pointed to the lack of information on long-term effects,  including the risk of cancer. The ACLU could have also pointed to a 2000 study conducted by a Texas Naval Health Research Center on rhesus monkeys exposed to 94-GHz millimeter waves. Corneal damage occurred. The AIDs use 95 GHz.

Because of the unknown health risks, as well as the proven ones, Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, has stated that the use of AIDs is a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The potential for abuse of AIDs in the hands of prison guards should be apparent. Remember how many police officers have misused Tasers, employing them on children, the elderly, and the disabled who posed no physical threat. The prison system is already under attack for rapes committed by prison staff, primarily by guards, who do not seem to believe prisoners have civil liberties.


Much is made of the fact that the AID “is designed to emit a burst of no more than three seconds with each trigger pull.” But the machine is also designed to emit rapid and repeated bursts, much like a computer game. What stops a prison guard from going click-click-click as fast as he can pull the trigger, which is called a “joy stick”? What stops the guard from AIDing a prisoner who merely disobeys or otherwise angers him?

The debate may be engaged but the bottom line is that an experimental weapon designed for crowd control by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq will now be tested in America against its own citizens. Just as torture was declared legal when used by military interrogators, the use of “pain rays” by law enforcement may become de facto legal unless a constitutional challenge succeeds.

If Booen’s vision of a handheld pain ray comes to pass, it is probably only a matter of time before the device takes its place beside the Taser on a police officer’s belt. Then the streets of America would be less safe from its own police, and the average person may look back at Tasers as the good old days.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.