What’s in a Name?

The use of force is a social, political, and ethical problem.  When members of the police, military, paramilitary, sub-state groups or individuals apply force, questions need to be asked whether it was necessary and proportional.

The search for weapon options that might reduce controversy has a long history.  In past decades, tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons were developed to deal with individual and public disorder.  More recently, weapons of a similar ilk included chemical sprays and electroshock devices.

By the mid-1990s though, a variety of military and police commentators advanced the label of ‘non-lethal weapons’ as a unifying term.  Under it fell the previously mentioned weapons as well as ‘next generation’ ones.  The old fashioned technologies were said to soon to give way for a far broader spectrum of options: acoustic weapons which shatter windows and cause internal damage; electromagnetic pulse beams designed to knock individuals down and cause seizures; and chemical agents which act as calmatives.  Such old and next generation weapons were presented as evidence of the intent of governments to find options short of lethal force.  Funding applications, publications, an international conference circuit, and even some new technologies followed.

Much of the critical attention from civil society has been directed at debunking the notion that these weapons are, in fact, really ‘non-lethal’.  The placement of quotations around the term, for instance, has been used to question its accuracy.  Counter responses to critics have argued that while death might sometimes result, an underlining intent is to avoid this outcome by providing options short of firearms.  Variant designations such as ‘less-lethal’ and ‘less-than-lethal’ have been offered to acknowledge the possibility for fatalities while signaling the claimed underlining intent.

Yet there are grounds for thinking that this type of critical framing has been overly focused on one end of the force spectrum.  Evidence suggested that many such weapons labeled non-lethal have been deployed in situations far beyond those where the use of firearms would be considered acceptable.  Counter-labels such as ‘more-than-before weapons’ or ‘pain weapons’ though have not gained widespread public traction.  Efforts to simply reject the non-lethal label arguably have been too few.  Instead, through the acceptance of ‘lethal’ as the focal point for debate, in funding applications, publications, and an international conference circuit, many proponents and critics together perpetuated a debate slanted towards only part of the force spectrum.

By adopting the designation of ‘pain weapons’ to refer what are elsewhere designated as non-lethals we can work to address that imbalance.  While the label might be criticized for not capturing all relevant features of these weapons, it is certainly better than the misleading term ‘non-lethal’.

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