Published in the New York Post March 23, 2008 -- At last year's
Gadgetoff convention in New York, the Department of Homeland
Security's undersecretary of science and technology showed off the
latest and greatest in nonlethal weapons: a puke gun.
"The dazzler is a sea-sickness machine," said Jay Cohen, a retired
naval admiral, who brandished the weapon for the audience to see. The
dazzler, formally called the LED Incapacitator, affects the body's
equilibrium with a flashlight-shaped device with variously colored
flashing laser lights, like a psychedelic disco ball.
"I'm not going to point it at you," he said. "I was with a group of GE
executives yesterday, and I held it up like this, and just the
reflection made them nauseous."
The audience of tech enthusiasts wanted the same demonstration,
however. "Come on, do it," someone in the audience screamed. "Well,
this is a tough audience,"
Cohen said. "Are there barf bags?"
The audience may have been laughing, but the device is no joke. It
even has a fictional precursor: in the film, "Minority Report,"
police officers touch criminals with a "sick stick," which makes them
Except science fiction now is reality, as an array of nonlethal
weapons that make you temporarily blind, deaf or sick are nearing
For decades, nonlethal weaponry was largely limited to blunt-impact
objects like bean bags and pellet guns. Taser, a neuro-muscular
disruptor, became immensely popular with law enforcement, but its
major drawback is its limited range; the military wants weapons that
can go beyond tens of meters. Thus the interest in "directed energy"
weapons, i.e. devices that use light, sound, or in the case of one
device, heat waves, to deter enemies.
Laser "dazzlers," now gaining popularity in the military, are
typically designed to temporarily disorient an attacker. "The
different colors -
alternating colors - definitely has a nauseating effect, and is more
disorienting than one color,"said Ti Casazza, whose Connecticut-based
company, LE Systems, sells dazzlers to law enforcement and the
Casazza described one experiment using red and green lasers at a mock
prison riot. "It made everyone nauseous," he confirmed. The problem
with such a device, he maintained, is that it relies on an aggressor
being very close to the weapon.
"The whole idea of vision impairment is to keep the person at a
distance, to understand their intent," he said. "If it's not bright
enough to make you stay away, then they can be close enough to do you
At the other end of the sensory spectrum, acoustic nonlethal devices
are increasingly popular, particularly for protecting ships from
attackers. Most famously, in 2005, a cruise ship used a Long Range
Acoustic Device, or LRAD, to hold pirates at bay off the coast of
Though American Technology Corp. markets LRAD as a "device" not a
"weapon," the company acknowledges that the long-range hailer can be
used as something like a sonic blaster. "If you can stand there and
take it, you'll hurt their hearing," said Robert Putnam, a spokesman
for the company. "It's like a hot stove: If you can take the pain,
you will get burned, but it's your choice." The Navy, Coast Guard and
private customers have already bought the LRAD.
Another audio defensive device is the Inferno, a "sonic barrier"
developed in Sweden. Unlike the acoustic hailers, Inferno combines
sound frequencies that are supposed to have a uniquely disturbing
effect on the human body. Maurice Goldman, the US managing director
for Inferno, said chest pain, dizziness, and nausea are among the
symptoms that informal test subjects have described after being
exposed to the Inferno.
In a recent test of the device on police officers (and this reporter),
Goldman demonstrated the Inferno's sonic blast; while it didn't
create instant nausea, people agreed that even brief exposure
resulted in a splitting headache.
Goldman has made sales to the military and the US State Department.
One device is mounted on a luxury boat for self-protection. "It can
be also used as a sounder or warning for school shootings," Goldman
On the more exotic spectrum, the Pentagon in 2002 revealed work on the
Active Denial System, a weapon that uses millimeter waves to create an
intense burning sensation. Dubbed the "pain ray," the military hopes
this year to send the device to Iraq.
The Pentagon has held two public demonstrations of its pain ray,
allowing reporters to be hit by the device, often to comical effect.
At a demonstration held last year in Virginia, heavy rain partially
dampened the effect; it produced more of a warm glow than a burning
pain (though it was still strong enough to make all the reporters
jump out of the way).
Despite the number and variety of such weapons, it's proven difficult
for the military to actually use them, particularly in the case of
the pain ray. "It's been held back, because of political decisions,"
said John Alexander, a former government official who specialized in
nonlethal weapons. "They just don't have the will to do it;
everybody's afraid of the unknown."
Even if the Active Denial System were deployed, it's not really
something that would replace lethal weapons. "It will be a very
limited number of items," said Alexander. "We're not talking about a
mass deployment. The idea was: it could possibly be used for point
defense, like protecting the Green Zone."
Doug Beason, a Los Alamos scientist and author of "E-Bomb," said that
the biggest challenge is a lack of a clear policy - and fear that
soldiers will be left without options. He recalled attending a recent
military conference where one of the presenters expressed
frustration: "It is harder to field a weapon that won't kill someone
than to field a weapon that can kill someone," Beason recalled the
In the end, that means US citizens, rather than foreigners, will
likely be subjected to some nonlethal weapons long before they are
used abroad. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, says
the "puke gun" will be in the hands of police this year.
As Cohen, the DHS official, put it at the end of his
demonstration: "We're trying to change from 'Don't tase me, bro,'
to "daze me bro."
Sharon Weinberger is co-author of the forthcoming book, "A Nuclear
Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry."