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The UK Police: Preparing the Sub-Lethal Future

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Bolstered by the runaway success of The Hunger Games, dystopia seems to be becoming a new cultural sub-genre amongst the young. Bookshop windows now display a whole range of bleak teenage fictional future scenarios, involving genetic engineering, pervasive surveillance and police states.

You could attribute this trend to skilful opportunist marketing, but the popularity of these books suggests that young people perhaps can already sense what's in store for them. After all, the great dystopian fictions of the past like Zemyatin's We, Brave New World, 1984 or Minority Report were all extrapolations of the present which mirrored and exaggerated already existing tendencies and directions in society.

Today's teenage dystopias are no exception, and young novelists in search of components for the worst possible future don't have to look far or imagine very much. Permanent unemployment; workfare 'job experience' schemes and increased insecurity and low pay for those who find work; Internet snooping; national security hysteria; policing by privatised Sercocops; the delirious highs and lows of the global financial system that no one seems able to fix and may even be unfixable; surveillance by UAVs; x-raying young asylum seekers to see if they are really the age they say they are - it's all out there.

If you're a sixteen-year-old protesting about tuition fees, you might find yourself kettled for eight hours. Or like Alfie Meadows, you might be whacked on the head with a police truncheon, require emergency brain surgery and make a complaint about it, only to find that it's you, not the police officer responsible who ends up in court.

So writers of teen fiction certainly have grounds for taking a dim view of the present and the near future, and they aren't the only ones to do so. For the news that the police are planning to intensify the use of 'less lethal' technologies and weaponry suggests that the Home Office doesn't believe that things can only get better either.

These plans are contained in a briefing paper by the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST), obtained by the Guardian, which summarises a brainstorming session which took place on October 11 last year in response to 'the UK wide public disorder and crime in the summer.'

Its participants included CAST scientists and researchers, the Met, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Serious Crimes Agency (SOCA), who considered the potential use of various technologies including acoustic and directed energy weapons, Directed Irritant Projectiles (DIPs), such as pepper spray and chemical irritants, and malodorants or 'skunk spray', in dealing with similar episodes in the future.

Police forces across the UK have already increased their stocks of plastic bullets or 'attenuating energy projectiles' (AEPs), as they are now called, and the new 'less lethal' technologies are intended to widen the range of options available to police commanders and 'reduce reliance on, or defer resort to' the Plastic Bullet Round, rather than replace it.

At first sight the notion of 'less lethal' technologies might seem quite appealing in relative terms. We might agree that pepper spray and projectiles that makes your clothes stink, or the use of 'area denial' acoustic beams is preferable to live ammunition or plastic bullets.

But these technologies aren't exactly benign. In a 2002 report on 'future, sub-lethal, incapacitating & paralysing technologies' Steve Wright, an expert on non-lethal weapons from Leeds University noted 'a pattern of such less lethal weapons being used both for punishment and for softening up dissenters before deploying lethal force.'

Wright also noted an overlap between 'military' and 'policing' functions in the use of such weapons, in which:

Amnesty, for example, found pepper-gas being against peaceful protestors in the US in a manner they deemed tantamount to torture.  It is not difficult to imagine future chemicals with pain, vomit or hallucination inducing qualities to be used in ways which are similarly abusive. Similarly with microwave weapons alleged to create an artificial fever by raising body temperature which is said to be self-limiting because people will move out of range because of the pain.

As Wright has observed, the use of such technologies was originally pioneered by the US military for use in the context of urban warfare and counterinsurgency in the 1990s. Since then research into non-lethal weaponry has spilled over into other areas such as border security, domestic surveillance, law enforcement and crowd control.

The new interest of the UK police in these technologies is another product of this spillover between the military and law enforcement. And these technologies certainly owe more the priorities of our endless 'age of austerity' than they do to humanitarian considerations.

Ever since the student protests of 2010, the police have shown an alarming tendency to treat far milder expressions of civil disorder than last summer's riots as incipient insurgencies. The essential message behind the often stunning violence meted out to the youthful protesters who took part in those demonstrations was ' if you don't want this to happen to you then don't come.'

'Less lethal' technologies may well be used to transmit the same message - and not only to rioters and looters. Such weaponry suggests that the government is anticipating a very bleak and turbulent future.

And in this context, 'less lethal' technologies are another step towards the institutionalisation of repression as a default response to 'civil unrest', which prefers to focus on its consequences rather address its causes.

That future may or may not be lethal, but it will be no fun at all.