When controversial new military tools are being rolled out, perceptions often matter more than reality. Take the Active Denial System, the millimeter-wave pain ray developed by the Air Force. The weapon's effects are now pretty well understood by military researchers. But for the average person, it's been nearly impossible to sort through the range of claims and counter-claims surrounding the system. And these questions could come back to haunt the American government, if and when they ever deploy the system.I was powerfully reminded of this by the recent case of Raul Castells.Raul Castells is a controversial social activist in Argentina. In 2004 he organised a march on McDonalds ; in March 2006 he opened a community kitchen providing free food for poor people in Puerto Madero, a swish redeveloped dock area. Located opposite the Hilton Hotel, it carried the slogan "We are fighting for an Argentina in which the dogs of the rich don't eat better than the children of the poor".This behavior has angered some of his opponents in Argentina.On December 12th, Castells was in a scuffle with the police which resulted in his being hospitalised with serious burns over 20% of his body.I was victim of a new Police weapon, a type of flame thrower, said Castells (my translation). In fact, he was not sure if it was a flamethrower,a giant lighter or something else. Others claim that rubber bullets were fired at them after they went to help the burning man.The police dispute the account given by Castells and his followers, saying that he was hit by a molotov cocktail thrown by one of his own supporters.The Buenosairean and Federal Police do not use flame throwers, said a police spokesman, reasonably enough.My first guess was that this was an accident, and that Castells had been hit with pepper spray which had been accidentally ignited. Such sprays use a flammable alcohol base; non-flammable alternatives have been rejected on grounds of safety, effectiveness and environmental damage. However, the police deny using pepper spray in the encounter.This leaves two completely opposed versions of what happened. Who do you believe, the police or the protesters? While the days of the dirty war and critics of the government being 'disappeared' have long gone, the police are not universally trusted and officers have been convicted of extra-judicial executions of protesters as recently as 2002.Im not suggesting that the Argentine police are covertly field-testing an Active Denial system (though a portable version for police use was under development, and the Argentine police are quite innovative, being the first to adopt the electric cattle prod in the 1930s ). But when the ADS is employed, people will turn up on CNN claiming to be victims, and showing off sunburn, leprosy, blisters and every other skin condition ever seen. Who will you believe? More importantly, who will the local population believe?Dr Juergen Altmann suggests that prolonged exposure would likely produce high temperatures resulting in blistering over the entire exposed surface of the body. Clearly there is a risk, but re-radiation of heat outwards, and conduction of heat inwards will prevent the temperature from rising indefinitely. I have great respect for Dr Altmanns technical knowledge in matters nonlethal, but the lack of this kind of injury during extensive testing leads me to suspect that the ADS is (relatively) safe.Consider: if you step into warm sun from an air conditioned room, in a few seconds your skin temperature shoots up several degrees. This does not mean the solar heating will cause you to burst into flames if you remain for a few more minutes.But who is really right? Until questions like this can be resolved, any deployment of Active Denial technology is going to be a political minefield.-- David Hambling
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