The coming fight over "nonlethal neuroweapons"

Originally published at:


“Do you want Reavers, Lana? Because that is how you end up getting Reavers.”


reboot Firefly with the cast of Archer.



Hey @doctorow, thanks for engaging with our article—that’s really cool. It’s such an important issue, and the BWC and CWC are negotiations that unfortunately get almost no coverage, and are pretty much impossible for the public to engage with directly.

One thing - Defend Democracy Press is not the author or publisher of the content. This article appeared at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Defend Democracy Press is reproducing it without attribution.

If you could update with the correct attribution, that’d be awesome.


Ha! When we wrote the article we were thinking of the fear toxin from Arkham Knight — including the cloudburst dispersal mechanism. These things are active research programs in a number of countries.


Actually I seem to recall reading something about simple little enzyme molecules having powerful mood effects, and possible battlefield applications. Then… silence.


Great recall. There’s still a lot of research on the effects of prion-derived proteins going on. Still some discussion going on, but less of it overt. There was a book just published that covers it (among other things).

Interestingly, a lot of the initial battlefield hype has been folded into looking for therapies for PTSD. Whether or not it gets re-used as a weapon is an open question.




I’d say that the early results are not encouraging.

There is a reason why anesthesiologists are generally well trained and compensated; and it’s not because safely coaxing a brain into suspend mode is trivial. ‘Assault Anesthesiology’ seems unlikely to be a pleasant business, never mind the unpleasant ethical boundaries to be crossed when you have a captive subject and an increasingly impressive and precise set of options for poking at the insides of their head.


“less often lethal, and therefore more casually used by law enforcement”

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I’m not scared of it working. I don’t think a non-lethal reliably incapacitating weapon exists or can exist without some downright magical new technology being involved. Damn it, you can’t reliably give people peanuts without risking killing someone, let alone some brand new psychotropic compound.

What I’m scared is of it almost working right except when it doesn’t and becoming by dint of myth-making and marketing the new normal like, say, the taser, except worse. Then have it used viciously against the underclass who, by definition, don’t really matter and hide behind ‘nonlethal’ when it invariably turns out to be pretty damn lethal or maiming.

My bet on the nonlethal snake oil of the future is the PEP: a laser system which causes an EM storm when it vaporizes a scrap of clothing on the target which causes pain and paralysis. Currently it’s a bit too big for people, but it works a treat for riot dispersal. What happens when it hits someone’s eyes or how the same thing safely dispatches both three-year-olds and a 300 pound MMA champion has not been specified.


Given that tasers spawned much of the popularity of “excited delirium”; I suspect I don’t even want to know what…creative…‘diagnoses’ will become accepted euphemisms when actual weaponized drugs are being employed.

As for directed energy weapons; doesn’t 'Silent Guardian’ already have us covered on dubiously-safe-agony-at-a-distance? It only microwaves the surface of the skin, totally safe; and a crowd that suddenly feels like it is being burned alive would never react in a way that might turn into a real mess, am I right?


It still amazes me that we are barred from using chemical weapons in war against our enemy but we are allowed to use it against our citizenry.


Ah, the Agony Beam (‘Silent Guardian’… sigh. I love the ability of the American military to give sanitized names to things). It’s perfectly safe! Oh, as long as you don’t wear glasses. Or contact lenses. Or a wristwatch.

And feeling as if you are being burned alive is completely humane and will never be used on kettled protesters repeatedly for the sadistic amusement of the bastards-in-black[1]. Heavens no. Why, are the police forces of today the sort who’d abuse the ability to torture at a distance?

Sarcasm aside, I think what puts the kibosh on the effectiveness of the Agony Beam is that it can be stopped by a bedsheet. And that a crowd you’ve just, effectively, scalded with boiling water may exploit this fact to walk up to your fancy microwave and tear it and you to very small pieces. The thing about protesters in western countries is that, hitherto, they’ve been so very nice. Saintly, in fact. But these reserves of good will are fading and there may come a time when the response to being kettled is to turn the riot police into mince. I’ve lived through at least one revolution. (Don’t ask.) You don’t want to anger the crowd unless you are prepared to get the tanks out. And even then, hope you’ve enough tanks and the psychopaths to crew them.

[1] I remember when my neighborhood cop wore a friendly blue uniform with a tie and a nametag and looked like a up-gunned Postman Pat. Now they look like Judge Dredd on a bad day. In the intervening time, the crime-rate fell. Someone will have to explain this to me at some point.


That’s one of the super creepy subtext of the various classic photos of civil-rights-protest era police/protester clashes.

Look at the guys in the iconic brutality-in-Burmingham shots:

They look ready for desk duty. Sidearm, yes; but no body armor(ballistic or riot), no telescopic batons, no chemical agents, no shields, no rifles, no APCs, no helmets, water cannons borrowed from the fire department. And this is them brutally suppressing protesters they have no fondness whatsoever for.

Even the Kent State photos, where the national guard got involved, show the security forces looking practically naked. A bunch of guys in khaki with Garands. Any random 1033-bloated police force, much less the SWAT team, looks like an invading army from the future by comparison.


Or, for a real world example:

Scopolamine aka "Devil’s Breath"

Another thing that’s worrying about “non-lethal” weapons is that the definition (does not kill but can cause pain and distress) neatly overlaps with that of an ideal torture device.


Welcome to BoingBoing. It’s nice to see a knowledgeable commenter with worthwhile input. Stick around. (You’ve already shown commitment by choosing a non-generic avatar.)


Ha! That’s been my default web avatar for a decade. It is a picture I took of the first thing I studied independently at university - an experimental fusion device my former colleagues now use to develop space propulsion :slight_smile:

Glad for the welcome. I’ll try and keep involved - I’m terrible at Interneting, but this experience has been pretty great.


The US Air Force briefly did some research towards a chemical weapon that was supposed to turn enemy soldiers gay, overwhelming them with lust and rendering them unable to fight.

In 1994.