An Eye For a Rubber Bullet: The Dangers of Non-Lethal Weapons

In the early evening of November 14, 2012, Ester Quintana, a 42-year old Barcelona resident, was making her way home after taking part with friends in a demonstration to mark that day’s general strike.

As she made her way past riot police vans parked in a narrow street just off Paseo de Gracia, one of Barcelona’s busiest thoroughfares, Quintana was hit full-force in the face by what was almost certainly a rubber projectile shot by an officer of the Catalonian police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra.

Quintana was rushed to hospital but would ultimately lose her left eye, leaving in its place a deep, dark socket of raw scar tissue (to see an image, click here). She also suffered several bone fractures around the eye socket as well as serious damage to her cheekbone, jaw, nose and mouth.

In the aftermath of the incident, the Mossos d’Esquadra and Catalonia’s Regional Council of Interior predictably closed rank, denying all allegations of any involvement in Quintana’s injury. To date, they have altered their story at least five or six times and continue to deny that rubber bullets were fired at the scene of the incident, despite clear video evidence to the contrary.

A Chequered History

Pioneered by the British Ministry of Defence for use against rioters in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, rubber bullets have had a chequered history. Ostensibly intended to be fired at the ground so that the round bounces up and hits the target, causing pain but not injury, rubber bullets are frequently abused by police forces which often prefer to aim directly at protestors.

Between 1970 and 2005 about 125,000 rubber and plastic bullets were fired in Northern Ireland, causing at least 17 deaths. Indeed, in 2013 U.K. Ministry of Defence papers declassified from 1977 revealed that it was well aware that rubber bullets were more dangerous than was publicly disclosed. The papers stated rubber bullets were tested “in a shorter time than was ideal,” that they “could be lethal” and that they “could and did cause serious injuries.”

The disclosure hasn’t stopped Spanish, Greek and Portuguese authorities from continuing to advocate their deployment in public order incidents, despite the fact that their use is prohibited by almost all other EU member states. And the more they’re used the longer the list of victims grows. According to the organization “Stop Balas de Goma” (Stop Rubber Bullets), in Catalonia alone eight people have lost an eye to a runner bullet in the last four years.

A Booming Industry

Rubber bullets are one of a rapidly growing arsenal of “non-lethal” weapons being deployed by recession-hit governments across the globe. In Spain, government spending on anti-riot material and equipment, including rubber bullets, bullet-proof shields and tear gas canisters, has grown by a staggering 1,780 percent just in last year, from 173,670 euros in 2012 to 3.26 million in 2013.

In the Anglo-Saxon world the non-lethal weapon du jour is the taser gun, which, according to Amnesty International, has claimed the lives of close to 450 people worldwide since 2001. As the Australian ethicist Stephen Coleman points out, a large part of the problem with “non-lethal” weapons such as tasers is that while they are ostensibly meant as an alternative to much deadlier firearms, they are being routinely used to deal with a whole range of other problems. Not only are they being deployed to neutralise violent or potentially violent situations, but they are also being used to punish people who are simply being passively non-compliant.

By far the worst cases of taser abuse have taken place in the U.S., where victims have included a 14-year old girl who was tasered in the head after daring to run away from a police chief, a 6-year old boy who was given a 500-volt jolt at his elementary school and an 86-year old disabled woman in her bed who, according to the police report, took up (I kid you not) “a more threatening position in her bed.”

Arguably the most egregious legacy of the taser revolution is that police no longer try to solve a problem through dialogue, but instead “loose the juice”, and ask questions later — assuming, that is, there is a later for the taser victim.

Non-Lethal Weapons in Combat

Besides being used by riot and civilian police units, non-lethal weapons are also finding traction on the battle field. Conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia offer an ideal testing ground for many of the latest weaponry to come off the conveyor belt. After all, non-lethal weapons represent a fast-growing multi-billion dollar business for military contractors. According to the report Non-Lethal Weapons: Technologies and Global Market 2012-2020, published by Homeland Security Research, the Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) market is forecast to emerge as a key domain for asymmetric warfare and law enforcement technology providers:

Governments worldwide have undoubtedly understood the function of non-lethal weapons following lessons learned in Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Unforeseen street riots and mass demonstrations over the last decade have revealed the loopholes in the security dogma of the 21st century.”

There is a growing demand from combatant commanders, law enforcement officers and political establishments for NLW capabilities. This demand is driven by the need to help them win the hearts and minds of the non-combatant population and prevent world outcry and media attention due to non-combatant casualties. As a result, many governments have entered into non-lethal weapons R&D and procurement dedicated to the full spectrum of public safety, law enforcement, crowd control and asymmetric warfare.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been test-running the Orwellian-sounding Active Denial System (ADS), or what U.S. journalists have more fittingly dubbed the “Pain Ray”. Mounted on a truck or hummer, the ADS is a metal dish that emits electro-magnetic waves. Anyone caught within its 500-metre radius will feel as if they are being burnt alive and will quickly evacuate the area. According to the U.S. military, the rays, which only penetrate the very top layer of people’s skin — is perfectly safe. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t believe the Pentagon’s word?

According to Coleman, N-L weapons pose a very serious health risk, especially in light of the indiscriminate way they are often used. A perfect case in point is the Dubrovka Theater Siege in Moscow in 2002, in which Chechen terrorists took over 900 members of the audience hostage. In an attempt to free the hostages, Russian special forces stormed the theater, pumping the entire edifice full of anaesthetic gas 80 times stronger than morphine. While the gas may have incapacitated all 40 of the hostage takers, allowing the special forces to ruthlessly shoot each and every one of them in the head unchallenged, about 130 hostages (including nine foreigners) died due to adverse reactions to the gas.

Collective Punishment

Besides the clear dangers they pose to human health, non-lethal weapons arguably pose an even graver threat to the basic notion of civil engagement that underpins any system of participatory democracy. The rights of assembly and peaceful protest are — and must remain — fundamental pillars of any self-respecting democracy (which obviously excludes Spain these days). However, the use of non-lethal weapons to police public demonstrations risks enshrining a collective punishment approach to public order policing which would, in turn, effectively mean the de-facto criminalisation of virtually all forms of political or social protest.

In an interview last year with the Spanish documentary series Salvados, Sergi Pla, the former chief of the Mossos d’Esquadra’s riot brigade who was forced to resign in the wake of Quintana’s shooting, delivered an unveiled threat to all protestors, warning that anyone choosing to take part in a demonstration must “assume all the risks involved, regardless of whether they’re resisting actively or passively.”

As Quintana herself said in an interview with the Catalan newspaper El Periodico, “they (the police and government) want people to be afraid of protesting. The social protest movement is growing stronger and stronger and they (the police and government) seek to quash it.”

While “non-lethal”, or better put “less lethal”, weapons may offer police forces and governments the enticing prospect of enhanced social control — especially at a time when economic and political forces are alienating ever-growing ranks of society — they would do well to remember the following cautionary words from John F Kennedy:

Those who make peaceful protest impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” 

4 thoughts on “An Eye For a Rubber Bullet: The Dangers of Non-Lethal Weapons

  1. street protests, have become “handleable” and money is to be made from them…i.e th more u protest th more som asshole makes money…..people have to be organised into ….”Not going to work” for a week!….people have to find out who lives next to them!…does he or she work for th police, military, government etc…Ostracisation has to occur at street level…starting w their kids birthday parties…..utility visits to their homes have to be long and slow….this whole process of how to deal with “powers that be” have to be rethought…Nobody needs to get hurt!….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s