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Should we fear neuro-war more than normal war?

Should we fear neuro-war more than normal war?

FP
September 7, 2009

A new opinion piece in Nature (ungated version via a somewhat dubious Website) takes biologists to task for allowing the militarization of their work for the development of neuro-weapons — chemical agents that are weaponized in spray or gas form to induce altered mental states.

The Russian military’s use of fentanyl to incapacitate Chechen terrorists — and kill 120 hostages in the process — during the 2002 Nord-Ost seige was something of a wakeup call in this area. It’s no secret that the U.S. and other militaries are interested in these potential weapons (I wrote about a 2008 DoD-commisioned study on cognitive enhancement and mind control last November.) According to the Nature story, some companies are now marketing oxytocin based on studies showing that in spray form, it can increase feelings of trust in humans, an application discussed in the 2008 study.

Blogger Ryan Sager wonders what would have happened if the Iranian government had had such a weapon during this summer’s protests. He continues:

Now, some would argue that the use of non-lethal agents is potentially desirable. After all, the alternative is lethal measures. But the author of the opinion piece, Malcolm Dando, professor of International Security in the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK, doesn’t see it that way:

At the Nord-Ost siege, for instance, terrorists exposed to the fentanyl mixture were shot dead rather than arrested. Likewise, in Vietnam, the US military used vast quantities of CS gas — a ‘non-lethal’ riot-control agent — to increase the effectiveness of conventional weapons by flushing the Viet Cong out of their hiding places.

While we might want to believe that we would use such weapons ethically going forward, the idea of a dictator in possession of such weapons is rather chilling — moving into science-fiction-dystopia territory.

I suppose. Though I think I’m going to continue to be most worried about them having nuclear weapons. The Iranian regimes rigged an election; killed tortured and hundreds of protesters; and coerced opposition leaders into giving false confessions. I don’t think it would have been that much worse if they had had weaponized oxytocin on their hands.

Sager is right that this is a topic worthy of debate, but I find it strange that research on weapons designed to incapacitate or disorient the enemy seems to disturb people a lot more than research on weapons designed to kill them. As for the idea that neurological agents could facilitate other abuses, Kelly Lowenberg writes on the blog of the Stanford Center for Law and the Neurosciences:

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.

I think this is right. New technology, as it always does, is going to provoke new debates on the right to privacy, the treatment of prisoners, and the laws of war, but the basic principles that underly that debate shouldn’t change because the weapons have.

 


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