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Militarized Neurotechnology: Incapacitating chemical agents

Two recent pieces in Nature, an opinion and an editorial, discuss how non-lethal neuroactive chemical agents have been used by military forces (e.g. fentanyl-induced unconsciousness) and speculate about the potential development of more non-lethal weaponized chemicals (drug-induced lack of aggression, oxytocin-induced trust). Although using these chemical agents is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an exception allows their use by law enforcement, for example, in domestic riot control (which may or may not include intrastate military actions).

The author of the opinion article is strongly opposed to allowing the military to use non-lethal chemical agents (including incapacitating agents that result in unconsciousness, like fentanyl), and recommends removing the exception for law enforcement. Some people, however, would like to see the CWC be amended to include a new exception permitting incapacitating agents to be used in warfare, which  increasingly takes place in population-dense areas where using lethal force could put civilians’ lives at risk.   The divergent views on policy regarding incapacitating neuroactive chemicals leads me to ask, what about these chemicals makes them more alarming than other weapons?  An understanding about why incapacitating chemical agents are uniquely worrisome should inform how they will be regulated.

Is it that they are difficult to defend against and therefore more effective? Is this a problem even though these weapons create non-lethal alternatives in otherwise deadly situations? Or is our real concern that, by incapacitating, they facilitate brutality toward a defenseless prisoner? If so, then the conversation should be about illegal soldier/police abuse, not the chemical agents themselves. Or is there something inherently unacceptable about militarized neuroactive chemical agents? Is acceptability determined by the intended effect (temporary unconsciousness)? By the mechanism (manipulating the brain)? By the amount of pain (fentanyl was developed as an anesthetic, so likely none)? By the size of its therapeutic index and how safe it is (when used to end a siege in a Moscow theater, fentanyl-derived gas killed 124 of the over 750 hostages)?

Should the Chemical Weapons Convention be amended to prohibit the use of incapacitating chemical agents by law enforcement?  Or to permit their use by the military?  Does permitting them in either context place us at the tip of a too steep slope of biological weapons with more prolonged and devastating effects (attacking fertility or the immune system)?  Or does it save lives?

Comments, thoughts, or answers welcome!

- Kelly Lowenberg

6 Responses to “Militarized Neurotechnology: Incapacitating chemical agents”

  1. hgreely says:

    And to what extent is our uneasiness linked to the “neuro” side of these kinds of weapons. There are other non-lethal (most of the time), incapacitating weapons out there that don’t act directly on the brain – think of tasers. Some have suggested incapacitating uses of sound and other non-neural interventions. These can go beyond the limits of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Or, to implicate another convention, what about a non-deadly biological intervention – a short acting, incapacitating but not (very) dangerous pathogen?

    Does non-deadly force get used more easily and less discriminately? “Stun them all; we’ll sort it out later.” On the other hand, is it as effective when those attacked know they can try to storm the users without fear of death? (I like to read some science fiction, but fear to cite it, but botho of these are raised in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, as the characters, from time to time, note differences between using stunners and (lethal) nerve disruptors.

    On its face, non-lethal/permanently disabling weaponry seems to me better than the alternatives, but much would depend on the circumstances, though not, I think, specifically on whether it was a weapon targeted at the brain.

  2. Let the military use the stuff. Think of how valuable it could be in gathering intel and in pre-emptive military strikes. Maybe a dose could even have been instrumental in capturing Bin Laden? Or am I just WAY off base here. Talk amongst yourselves, people…

  3. Kelly Lowenberg says:

    Even in the comment section of this post, opinions on this topic greatly differ; compare Daniel’s comment with Ryan’s blog. I do think incapacitating chemical agents raise unique problems, none of which absolutely proscribe their use. Three of them are described below (the post and the articles linked above raise more), which I believe apply equally well to domestic law enforcement use but are discussed in terms of military use. Also, notably, none of my major concerns turn on whether the weapons act directly on the brain.

    First, there is the concern that Hank raises in his comment above. Incapacitating agents may be used more easily and less discriminately. Additionally, if these weapons are used instead of deadly force in some situations, combatants may act differently when they know their enemies will incapacitate them instead of kill them. Perhaps, the answer to the less discriminate use is, in part, to define circumstances in which this level of force can be used, similar in kind to restrictions on when police officers can use force or when an enemy soldier can be killed or injured. Whether or not would-be targets of the incapacitating agents will be more aggressive when they are at a lower risk of death is an interesting question, the answer to which could be suggested by how police encounters have changed since they began using tear gas, pepper spray, and tasers.

    Second, for some chemical agents like fentanyl, the dosage necessary to incapacitate may be very close to the lethal dosage, resulting in unintended deaths, including civilian deaths. A low therapeutic index weakens one of the strongest arguments in favor of the military using these weapons, that they can be used in populated areas instead of lethal weapons that might kill bystanders. If a chemical weapon with a low therapeutic index is deployed in a crowded area, civilians will still die. This concern may be resolved with more input from scientists familiar with the chemical agents (as the editorial suggests).

    Third, the incapacitating chemical agent may be misused to kill a person while he is unconscious, which is a violation of international humanitarian law. Breaches of humanitarian law are a more basic problem that is not unique to the context of incapacitating agents. Still, whether an amendment to the CWC to allow for military use would likely increase misuse should be part of the conversation about whether to amend. Perhaps one step toward resolving this problem would be to include provisions specific to how soldiers who are chemically incapacitated must be treated.

    If incapacitating agents that are used appropriately can, in some instances, substitute for lethal force and avoid deaths, then I think the conversation should be about how the CWC and other laws can be structured to prevent overuse or misuse. Only if that goal were impossible, would an absolute ban on their use seem necessary to me.

  4. Simon says:

    I imagine it’s the military aspect of the science that troubles. Imagine using the technology to achieve your ends and you’ll not be too worried. Ask yourself how you’d rather be over-run by meglomaniacs and it’ll be a tougher choice.

  5. Seems to me that restricting use of these chemical agents solely for mililtary combat purposes would address the concern about collateral damage to civilians. What is the risk of a “beta test” of this kind?

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