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Too often, military and law enforcement authorities have found themselves constrained by inadequate weaponry: the tools available to them, in addressing confrontations with entrenched opponents of various sorts, are either too weak (not sufficing to disarm or defeat the enemy) or too strong (generating unacceptable "collateral damage" in harming innocent people or property). An emerging category of "non-lethal weapons" carries promise for resolving this dilemma, proffering deft new capabilities for disabling, dissuading, or defeating opponents without inflicting death or permanent injury.

Some primitive non-lethal weapons (such as truncheons, tear gas, and water cannon) have long been staples in the inventories of police and military forces in the United States and other countries. More sophisticated options (e.g., electronic stun guns or pepper spray) are becoming more common and are increasingly employed in a variety of law enforcement and security situations. Most dramatically, an array of much more sophisticated technologies (including directed energy beams, calmative chemicals, and foam sprays that seal buildings or make an area impassively slippery) are being developed, and could emerge for use by soldiers and police in the near future.

These augmented capabilities carry both immense promise and grave risks: they expand the power of law enforcement and military units, enabling them to accomplish assigned missions with greater finesse and reduced casualties. But they may also be misused, they may proliferate to malign applications, and they may inspire leaders to over-rely upon a myth of "bloodless combat."

This article explores the emerging world of non-lethal weapons by examining a series of case studies--recent real-world scenarios from three diverse confrontations around the world in which the availability of a modern arsenal of non-lethal weapons might have made a difference, enabling a more successful outcome in the face of deeply entrenched opposition.

Publication Citation

36 Geo. J. Int'l L. 703-808 (2005)