Riot Control

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Simon Hayter / Getty Images

Police in full riot gear carrying shields and tear-gas guns approach violent protesters during the G-20 summit in downtown Toronto

In an ignominious milestone, this week marks the 40th anniversary of the British army's introduction of rubber bullets to Northern Ireland as a form of riot control. The bullets have a scarred history: while obviously less dangerous than live rounds, they have proved deadly in their own way. Fatal if shot from close range, rubber bullets killed three people (including an 11-year-old boy) in Northern Ireland before they were replaced by seemingly safer plastic bullets. Unfortunately, these "baton rounds" offered the same dangers; between 1975 and 1989 more than a dozen people, many of them children, suffered fatal injuries because of those rounds.

The history of what is euphemistically called nonlethal pacification stretches back more than a century. The first official iteration was the Victorian policeman's truncheon, a heavy stick used to smack miscreants upside the head. Later in the 1800s, British policeman in the Empire's eastern colonies first hit upon the idea of using ammunition that administered blunt force instead of penetrating the body, starting with modified broom handles and then adopting wooden bullets made out of teak. Citing safety concerns over splintering rounds, Brits on the home front made the change to rubber bullets, but round wooden bullets (called knee-knockers for the way they are meant to bounce off the ground and strike targets' legs) are still in use in some American police precincts.

While British forces discontinued rubber bullets more than 30 years ago, the rounds are still commonly used by police and military forces the world over, most notably against antiglobalization protestors at events like the G-20 summit and Palestinian demonstrators in the Middle East. However, a 2002 study by the Lancet medical journal found that rubber-coated bullets used by Israeli security forces caused too many injuries — including blindness and permanent disability — to be considered a safe form of crowd control. Human Rights Watch has pushed for the ammunition to be banned completely.

Another riot-control device has its roots in the trenches of World War I. Though tear gas is banned in international warfare, it has been used by police forces since the 1920s. The gas, which produces tearing, coughing and sometimes vomiting, has been deployed against prison riots, union picket lines and civil rights marches. Though its backers maintain it is a safe and nontoxic crowd-control device, its use has proved controversial, most notably after the Branch Davidian siege of 1993, when it was alleged that the amount of gas shot into the Waco, Texas, compound could have had lethal effects on children trapped inside.

The 1985 Supreme Court decision Tennessee v. Garner, which ruled that the use of deadly force against unarmed and fleeing suspects violated the Fourth Amendment, ramped up American interest in nonlethal methods. Today, the most popular nonlethal weaponry among law-enforcement officers are flash-bang grenades, which produce a burst of light and sound that temporarily stuns those in the vicinity, and so-called soft-projectile rounds (like a beanbag filled with birdshot). These new technologies, however, come with the same risks as the old ones: broken bones, loss of sight and (sometimes) death.

The headlines created by the most extreme cases have contributed to an arms race by weapons manufacturers to see who can build a truly nonlethal weapon. In the post-9/11 era, some have a sci-fi ring: a magic goo that makes pavement too slippery to walk upon, a repellent gas that smells of unpleasant bathroom odors and, most notably, an invisible ray that temporarily heats up the surface of the skin to an uncomfortable 130°F. (The last was deployed in Afghanistan this year, but was withdrawn on the advice of military commanders there.)

Though each wave of inventions has been trumpeted as being safer than the one preceding it, by removing the psychological barriers to their use, new nonlethal weapons may ironically be increasing violence. As Naomi Wolf argues in her book Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, "A beat officer armed with a gun is far less of a threat than one who is armed with a Taser. When he is policing middle-class crowds who are marching in protest, the officer is far more likely to reach for his Taser than he would have been to reach for his nightstick or gun." A convincing point, but another event celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this summer, one that makes it hard to argue against the need for such nonlethal weapons: Kent State.