OVER the past few years, a new kind of nonviolent-weapons research has quietly gained a foothold in the Pentagon and at the laboratories that have long designed this nation's most destructive arms. ``Nonlethality'' is, as its proponents describe it, a concerted effort to develop high-technology devices that defeat the use of lethal means while minimizing loss of life and damage to the environment.
Examples include weapons that keep airplanes grounded by preventing their engines from starting, instruments that incapacitate enemy soldiers with nonlethal chemicals and electromagnetic pulses (EMP), infrasound waves that disorient civilians for crowd control and psychological operations, and devices that confound sophisticated command-and-control systems. Disabling effects are achieved through such temporary expedients as anti-traction agents, calmatives, stun guns, and supercaustics. More long-lasting changes result from using laser weapons, high-powered microwaves, and nonnuclear EMP.
Research into these and other exotic technologies has been actively pursued for the past several years at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories, where officials view nonlethal technologies as the perfect growth industry to bolster budgets whose bread-and-butter work, nuclear-weapons design, has lost its ostensible urgency with the cold war's end.
In rationale and rhetoric, this new breed of nonlethal weaponry sounds like a fantasy sprung from the imagination of a Silicon Valley techno-pacifist. But it is being touted by individuals and institutions at precisely the opposite end of the political spectrum from the classical nonviolent tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Among nonlethality's most ardent proponents is Ray Cline, a former CIA deputy director who after his retirement established a United States Global Strategy Council to promote a ``national nonlethality initiative'' and other policies to advance American interests in an uncertain new global order.
Co-chaired by conservative luminaries like former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and an array of former generals, admirals, and defense secretaries, the council formed a nonlethality policy review group in 1990 that bent the ears of Vice President Dan Quayle, Chief of Staff John Sununu, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, persuading the Bush administration to establish a Nonlethality Task Force under the secretary of defense.
The idea gained favor in the run-up to the Gulf war, where it was promoted as a means of immobilizing Iraqi forces and equipment without killing soldiers or civilians.
With such high-level access, nonlethality has rapidly gained respectability in the same corridors of power from which advocates of nonviolent action have been routinely barred and left to sit outside in protest. Why it has so quickly gained favor among those who traditionally support the aggressive use of force says much about how such seemingly benign technologies might ultimately be deployed.
Like the Strategic Defense Initiative a decade ago, nonlethality exercises a seductive promise to render the enemy ``impotent and obsolete'' without the messy and morally repugnant expedient of spilling innocent blood. Both strategies began with an eminently sensible question: In an age of dazzling inventiveness, is it still necessary to kill others in order to prevent them from killing us? Is human ingenuity capable of devising less harmful means of preventing harm?
Strategic missile defense could only have worked if it replaced rather than reinforced the superpowers' deadly nuclear offenses. The underlying motivation of its proponents, however, was to marry offense and defense in order to forge a more impregnable and intimidating arsenal. Moreover, as a fundamentally political offensive, it tried to steal the moral high ground from the anti-nuclear movement by adopting the rhetoric of pacifism while dispensing with its substance.
IN the hands of many of its current advocates, nonlethality appears to display a similar set of underlying motives. Addressing the general public, proponents emphasize the strategy's ``peacemaking'' capabilities, claiming that it will establish a new standard for civilized international behavior. Addressing Pentagon generals, they stress that nonlethality will ``expand force options'' and allow commanders to ``effect control over people'' where lethal force may be politically unpalatable. Advertised not as a replacement for lethal force but a reinforcement for it, nonlethality permits the exercise of military power to suppress equally rebellions in the developing world and insurrections in the inner cities. And addressing a job-hungry defense industry, nonlethality's advocates underline its employment and profit possibilities.
Conceived as a mere addition to lethal force projection, nonlethality is a brilliantly cynical strategy to render the manipulation and suppression of restive populations at home and abroad more politically acceptable. But the velvet glove still conceals an iron fist, made all the more menacing by its outwardly appealing appearance.
Yet even if in its present formulation nonlethality is a flawed strategy, the challenge remains: Can human ingenuity prevent harm as effectively as it has been harnessed to inflict it? Is the marriage between high technology and nonviolent values inherently a Faustian bargain? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.