- The same technological revolution that is accelerating
the development of new medical products is also making it possible for
coercive regimes to manipulate human beings by altering their psychological
processes, controlling their behavior, interfering with reproduction or
tampering with inheritance - and even to do so without the knowledge of
- The International Committee of the Red Cross, not usually
alarmist, has taken the unusual step of issuing an appeal to prevent the
use of this technology as a weapon through hostile manipulation of fundamental
- Weapons with these unprecedented capabilities have been
outlawed, along with other chemical and biological weapons. Some nations,
however, are trying to legitimize the development of so-called "nonlethal"
weapons, citing their potential usefulness in situations like the recent
Moscow hostage crisis.
- The United States has been trying for years to find a
chemical incapacitating agent that would act rapidly and safely, but one
of the participating scientists says that what happened in Moscow, where
the "nonlethal" aerosol used to subdue the hostage takers killed
about 120 of the 750 hostages, shows the problems they face. With any substance
delivered through the air in an emergency action, it is impossible to control
individual doses. A significant degree of lethality is inevitable. If development
of "nonlethal" weapons is allowed, chemical agents will soon
be available for incapacitating human beings by inflicting intense pain,
altering bodily functions or controlling mood, thought and consciousness.
- Delivery methods include dart guns, aerosols, even viruses.
The temporary advantage these weapons might provide in a hostage situation
will soon be countered by terrorists in gas masks, but the potential for
controlling human beings will persist. The power of "nonlethal"
weapons - not simply death and destruction but manipulation of people and
populations - will be a huge temptation.
- The risks for humanity go far beyond the threat of terrorism.
We are on the verge of an arms race sparked by the misleading term nonlethal
- coined to sell this weaponry to the public - and the Moscow hostage crisis,
an excuse for nations to acquire such weapons. Yet, as a military contractor
in the field acknowledged after the Moscow crisis, such weapons are "not
the silver bullet that some people think."
- When one country develops these weapons, there will be
a strong impetus for other countries to do so. History shows that once
a weapon is in a country's arsenal, it is likely to be used, not always
for the purpose originally intended. For example, tear gas, a riot-control
agent, was used in the Vietnam War to increase the reach and deadliness
of conventional weapons.
- That is why the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 and
the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 outlawed the possession
of chemical and biological weapons, even though their use was already prohibited
by the Geneva Protocol of 1925.
- Most "nonlethal" weapons are toxin derivatives.
The biological convention categorically prohibits them, but this has been
routinely ignored. The chemical convention also prohibits them but contains
an undefined exemption for "law enforcement," a gaping loophole
that threatens to undo the ban.
- The 153 chemical convention signatories will have an
opportunity to limit that loophole in April, when the convention is scheduled
to be reviewed. Yet it is already apparent that many governments want to
leave their options open. Unless there is public pressure, there will be
no barrier to the development of toxin weapons.
- The technology to develop sometimes-lethal and potentially
manipulative weapons is not just a future possibility; it is here now.
In many ways, "nonlethals" are more frightening than nuclear
weapons. Once they proliferate, it will be too late to stop them.
- We need to insist on immediate action by our government,
with other countries, to prevent the exploitation of biotechnology in ways
that could threaten not just life but human autonomy and human rights.
- Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a research professor of molecular
biology at State University of New York at Purchase, is chairwoman of the
Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons;
Mark L. Wheelis, a member of the working group, is a professor of microbiology
at the University of California, Davis. This piece originally appeared
in the Los Angeles Times.