Zombie Drugs for The Troops and the Masses -- and You
Today, when Alex reported on the story below, "Blanks for the Memories,"
he reminded his audience about the report last year from The Village Voice that amnesia-inducing drugs were being developed for the troops to create a "guilt free" solder.
We were also reminded of the rash of killings by returning soldiers that were blamed on malaria drugs. Funny coincidence, isn't it. More likely, the soldiers had used other drugs given to them by the US military.
The develoment on memory-erasing or guilt easing drugs is something that we should all be wary of. These are dangerous zombie drugs, and they are being developed for the troops and the masses -- and you. Below is a collection of stories from the mainstream media covering these drugs.
"The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get...And if anything should go wrong, there's soma. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!... Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!... Of course [Othello is better than those feelies]. But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art."-- World Controller Mustapha Mond from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
Blanks for the memories
Someday you may be able to take a pill to forget painful recollections
San Diego Union-Tribune 2/11/2004
There's a scene in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" where the protagonist implores a doctor to treat Lady Macbeth, who is wracked by memories of past bad acts.
"Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?"
The doctor, of course, can offer no real salvation. Lady Macbeth is condemned to live with her bad memories. Recalling our past is a part of the human condition. But what if that reality changed? What if people – 400 years after Shakespeare asked – could take a pill to purposefully dim – perhaps erase – our most painful and unwanted memories?
The notion has long been a favorite of fiction writers, from Shakespeare to fantasists like the late Philip K. Dick, but serious people – scientists and scholars – now believe it might be possible.
"The burgeoning field of neuroscience is providing new, more specific, and safer agents to help us combat all sorts of psychic distress," wrote the authors of "Beyond Therapy," a recently released report by the President's Council on Bioethics.
"Soon, doctors may have just the 'sweet oblivious antidote' that Macbeth so desired: drugs that numb the emotional sting typically associated with our intensely bad memories."
The authors do not think this is necessarily a good thing.
Think it with feelings
Memory isn't a single entity. There are different kinds and types.
Short-term memory lasts just a few seconds. It's the ability to recall a phone number long enough to dial it. Capacity is limited. It's no coincidence that phone numbers are just seven numbers long. That's the working limit for most people's short-term memory.
Long-term memories come in two broad categories. Explicit memories are general knowledge, facts of life, conscious recollections, the sort of stuff most people think of as memory.
Implicit memories are perceptual abilities, motor skills, conditioned or instinctive responses that operate outside of consciousness, such as instantly recognizing an object or knowing how to ride a bike.
Researchers focus on long-term memory because it is the primary driver of behavior. Much about how long-term memories are formed or function is fuzzy or unknown, but some fundamentals are well-understood.
To wit: Strong emotions make strong memories.
Most daily events are quickly forgotten. They are memories writ in pencil, never made permanent. But some events provoke an emotional response. In these moments of joy or sadness, terror or surprise, the body is flooded with stress hormones released by the adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys. This is part of the ancient "fight or flight" response. Hormones like adrenaline wash over the amygdala – an almond-shaped portion of the brain that processes emotion, most notably fear. Adrenaline tells the amygdala that what's happening at that moment is worth remembering, that this is a memory to be writ in neurological ink.
Here's where many neuroscientists think there's an opportunity to act, to perhaps dilute a potentially traumatic memory before it dries hard and fast.
"We've learned that if you can prevent the system from working, give a drug that blocks the action of stress hormones (upon the amygdala and brain), then you may be able to prevent the influence of making stronger memories," said James L. McGaugh, director of UC Irvine's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and author of "Memory & Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories."
Memory-altering drug research is currently focused on propranolol, one of several so-called beta blockers widely used to reduce blood pressure, treat abnormal heart rhythms and prevent migraines. The brand name for propranolol is Inderal. Other beta blocker brand names are Inderide, Innopran XL, Betachron E-R, Kerlone, Lopressor, Tenormin, Toprol XL, Visken and Zebeta.
Beta blockers work by "blocking" the stimulative influence of stress hormones – specifically adrenaline – upon the body, relaxing blood vessels and slowing nerve impulses inside the heart.
Experiments indicate propranolol also blocks the effect of adrenaline upon areas of the brain involved in memory formation, including the amygdala. It seems to disconnect emotion from memory.
In a study conducted by Larry Cahill, a neurobiologist at UC Irvine, McGaugh and others in the late 1990s, test subjects were told an emotionally neutral, comparatively boring story illustrated by 12 slides. A second group of subjects was then shown the same 12 slides. The related story, however, was much more emotional, involving a severely injured boy.
When later asked what they remembered seeing in the pictures, subjects in the second group recalled much greater detail about the story than the first group did about theirs.
Cahill and McGaugh then presented the second, emotionally upsetting story with slides to a third group of volunteers who were given a standard dose of propranolol or endurol (another beta blocker). Their memories, when tested three weeks later, were "just like that of subjects who had received the boring story," said McGaugh.
Subjects remembered the story, but without any emotional depth.
Such findings suggest an obvious potential therapeutic benefit: If people who have just experienced a traumatic event could be given a memory-dampening drug like propranolol, they might avoid suffering later psychic damage, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Roughly 5 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 54 suffer from PTSD at any given time. Almost 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, women twice as likely as men. Clearly, McGaugh and others said, there are times when blocking the formation of traumatic memories would be beneficial.
"Let me give you an example from the 1978 PSA (plane) crash in San Diego where they made the horrible mistake of sending out desk people and baggage handlers to clean up body parts after the crash. Later, there was a follow-up report that said a very high percentage of those people were never able to work again. They had been permanently disabled because of the trauma.
"Now, that's PTSD to the nth degree, that would be a case in which something like (a memory-blunting drug) would be of value."
Two subsequent studies reinforce the potential efficacy of using beta blockers to blunt memory. In a 2002 pilot study, Roger Pitman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, recruited 31 people from the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital who had just been involved in a traumatic event, typically an automobile accident.
Some of the study volunteers were treated with propranolol for 10 days after the trauma; some received a placebo. Evaluated one month later, none of the subjects treated with propranolol had a stressful physical reaction to re-creations of their traumatic event, while six of the 14 subjects treated with a placebo did.
A similar 2003 study, conducted at two French hospitals, produced analogous results. Larger studies are being planned.
A need to remember
Despite its therapeutic potential, some people are wary of memory-altering drugs. Chief among them: the President's Council on Bioethics, an advisory group of doctors and scholars formed in 2001.
In its report, the council worries that dampening painful memories – or in the future, erasing them altogether – may disconnect people from reality or their true selves.
"The use of memory-blunters at the time of traumatic events could interfere with the normal psychic work and adaptive value of emotionally charged memory," the council wrote. "A primary function of the brain's special way of encoding memories for emotional experiences would seem to be to make us remember important events longer and more vividly than trivial events."
In other words, emotional memories, however painful, serve a purpose. We remember memories linked to emotions longer and better because they help us learn, adapt, survive. Early hominids needed to know and remember that lions were dangerous. Modern children burn their fingers on a match and learn that fire hurts. We all learn to avoid bad things by remembering bad experiences.
Council members fret that dampening traumatic memories with beta blockers may short-circuit "the normal process of recovery," that in some way it may diminish our character or our personal development.
Blocking emotional memories, the council asserted, risks "falsifying our perception and understanding of the world. It risks making shameful acts seem less shameful, or terrible acts less terrible, than they really are."
"It's the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt," said Dr. Leon Kass, who chaired the President's Council, to the Village Voice last year. (Kass noted he was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the council.)
The council expressed a host of concerns and troubling scenarios.
For example, the council posited, what if somebody committed an act of violence and then took propranolol to dull the emotional impact. Would they come to think of violence as more tolerable than it really is?
Would rape victims, having taken memory-altering drugs to ease their trauma, forget key details vital to the prosecution of their attackers?
More broadly, is there a social obligation for people to remember the past events for the communal good, such as victims of the Holocaust?
"The impulse is to help people to not fall apart. You don't want to condemn that," said Kass. "But that you would treat these things with equanimity, the horrible things of the world, so that they don't disturb you ... you'd cease to be a human being."
Such talk dismays researchers like McGaugh. Partly because they believe it overstates current scientific realities; partly because it seems a moot point. Society, suggests McGaugh, decided decades ago that the benefits of certain drugs outweighed any memory-altering side effects.
"We made that decision with the advent and use of psychoactive drugs. Valium is a memory-impairing drug, but I don't hear people raising memory issues about it."
More to the point, the influence of propranolol seems to be limited to new, emotional memories – and only if taken during or shortly after a traumatic event.
"The (memory-dampening) effects (of beta blockers) are rather weak," said Larry Squire, a neurobiologist at UCSD and the Veterans' Administration Medical Center in La Jolla. "And no one can imagine possibly tinkering with memory that represents our personal identities, memories of childhood, our connections to people and the past. Those are transformed over time. They're hard-wired in our brains and can't be fooled with."
But some researchers aren't so sure. In animal studies, neuroscientists like Joseph Ledoux at New York University say they have found evidence that there is a window of opportunity to alter a memory each time it is recalled.
Specifically, lab rats were trained to expect an electric shock when they heard a particular tone. The rats soon froze in fear whenever they heard the tone, even if no shock followed. Then the NYU researchers backed off, allowing the rats' brains to consolidate the memory, to embed it long-term. Days later, they played the tone again, eliciting the fearful response. But this time, some of the rats were given a drug that prevented the amygdala from making proteins necessary for memory storage. These rats stopped being fearful of the tone, apparently forgetting their earlier emotional response to it.
Other studies, blocking protein production in the hippocampus of crabs and chicks, produced similar results.
Karim Nader, an assistant professor of psychology at Montreal's McGill University who participated in the NYU rat research, believes there may be a human corollary to these animal studies and a potential opportunity to influence deeper, older memories when they are recalled, and then laid back down.
But the idea is highly controversial, with many skeptics.
"It's likely that any effects are reversible, temporary," said Squire. "You may be able to bring up a memory, weaken it, but eventually the memory comes back. The effect is more like interference than real change."
"I simply do not believe the (NYU) research is valid," added McGaugh. "Human studies have shown no such effect. They show human memory doesn't work that way."
Fact and fiction
McGaugh and similarly minded researchers doubt science will ever be able to probe an individual's mind, precisely plucking and altering specific memories like they do in movies. The brains of real people are far too complex. Memories aren't single molecules or neurons, but intricate patterns of biochemical and electrical energy occurring in various parts of the brain and different levels of the mind.
Take, for example, new findings from Michael Anderson and John Gabrieli, psychology professors at the University of Oregon and Stanford, respectively. Last month, they reported identifying the brain mechanism that allows humans to voluntarily block unwanted memories.
"Often in life we encounter reminders of things we'd rather not think about," Anderson said. "We have all had that experience at some point – the experience of seeing something that reminds us of an unwanted memory, leading us to wince briefly – but just as quickly to put the recollection out of mind. How do human beings do this?"
Anderson and Gabrieli discovered that when people consciously determine not to think about something they do not want to remember, their ability to recall that memory gradually weakens. Call it motivated forgetting.
The effect, said McGaugh, is not unlike what propranolol does biochemically and it fits neatly into what's known about how PTSD can progressively worsen with each recurrence of the traumatic memory.
How Anderson and Gabrieli's work can be exploited therapeutically, if at all, remains to be seen.
Currently, the pursuit of memory-altering drugs is limited, both in terms of the numbers of researchers involved and in what they are trying to do or learn. Prospects of a pill-to-forget hitting the market anytime soon are nil.
But even the existence of that prospect raises profound questions that demand answers, said Dr. William B. Hurlbut, a consulting professor in biology at Stanford University and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.
"The pattern of our personality is like a Persian rug," Hurlbut said. "It is built one knot at a time, each woven into the others. There's a continuity to self, a sense that who we are is based upon solid, reliable experience. We build our whole interpretation and understanding of the world based upon that experience or on the accuracy of our memories.
"If you disrupt those memories, remove continuity, what you have is an erosion of personhood."
|| The Guilt-Free Soldier
The Village Voice January 22-28, 2003
soldier faces a drab cluster of buildings off a broken highway, where the enemy is encamped among civilians. Local farmers and their families are routinely forced to fill the basements and shacks, acting as human shields for weapons that threaten the lives of other civilians, the soldier's comrades, and his cause in this messy 21st-century war.
There will be no surgical strikes tonight. The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he'll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.
Pills like those won't be available to the troops heading off for possible war with Iraq, but the prospect of a soul absolved by meds remains very real. Feelings of guilt and regret travel neural pathways in a manner that mimics the tracings of ingrained fear, so a prophylactic against one could guard against the other. Several current lines of research, some federally funded, show strong promise for this.
At the University of California at Irvine, experiments in rats indicate that the brain's hormonal reactions to fear can be inhibited, softening the formation of memories and the emotions they evoke. At New York University, researchers are mastering the means of short-circuiting the very wiring of primal fear. At Columbia University one Nobel laureate's lab has discovered the gene behind a fear-inhibiting protein, uncovering a vision of "fight or flight" at the molecular level. In Puerto Rico, at the Ponce School of Medicine, scientists are discovering ways to help the brain unlearn fear and inhibitions by stimulating it with magnets. And at Harvard University, survivors of car accidents are already swallowing propranolol pills, in the first human trials of that common cardiac drug as a means to nip the effects of trauma in the bud.
The web of your worst nightmares, your hauntings and panics and shame, radiates from a dense knot of neurons called the amygdala. With each new frightening or humiliating experience, or even the reliving of an old one, this fear center triggers a release of hormones that sear horrifying impressions into your brain. That which is unbearable becomes unforgettable too. Unless, it seems, you act quickly enough to block traumatic memories from taking a stranglehold.
Some observers say that in the name of human decency there are some things people should have to live with. They object to the idea of medicating away one's conscience.
"It's the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt," says Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, who emphasizes that he's speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the council. Barry Romo, a national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, is even more blunt. "That's the devil pill," he says. "That's the monster pill, the anti-morality pill. That's the pill that can make men and women do anything and think they can get away with it. Even if it doesn't work, what's scary is that a young soldier could believe it will."
Are we ready for the infamous Nuremberg plea?"I was just following orders"?to be made easier with pharmaceuticals? Though the research so far has been limited to animals and the most preliminary of human trials, the question is worth debating now.
"If you have the pill, it certainly increases the temptation for the soldier to lower the standard for taking lethal action, if he thinks he'll be numbed to the personal risk of consequences. We don't want soldiers saying willy-nilly, 'Screw it. I can take my pill and even if doing this is not really warranted, I'll be OK,' " says psychiatrist Edmund G. Howe, director of the Program on Medical Ethics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "If soldiers are going to have that lower threshold, we might have to build in even stronger safeguards than we have right now against, say, blowing away human shields. We'll need a higher standard of proof [that an action is justified]."
The scientists behind this advance into the shadows of memory and fear don't dream of creating morally anesthetized grunts. They're trying to fend off post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, so that women who've been raped can leave their houses without feeling like targets. So that survivors of terrorist attacks can function, raise families, and move forward. And yes, so that those young soldiers aren't left shattered for decades by what they've seen and done in service.
Combat and psychoactive chemicals have always been inseparable, whether the agent was alcohol or a space-age pill. A half-century after Japan hopped its soldiers up on methylamphetamines during World War II, the U.S. has pilots currently in the dock for mistakenly bombing Canadian troops while using speed to stay awake. When Eric Kandel, the Nobel laureate in medicine who works out of Columbia, was asked if his genetic exploration of fear was funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he quipped, "No, but you're welcome to call them and tell them about me."
Imagine a world where the same pill soothed victims and perpetrators alike. Henry David Thoreau advised, "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow. . . . To regret deeply is to live afresh." Without remorse, there would have been no John Newton, a slave trader who found religion during a harrowing storm at sea and later became an abolitionist; he's best known for penning "Amazing Grace."
For doctors, the drugs would present a tricky dilemma. Most people exposed to traumatic situations don't end up with PTSD, but there are few means of knowing on the spot who might need treatment much further down the line. Researchers say that for the medicines to be effective, patients would need to take them soon after the upsetting event. The temptation for physicians might be to err on the side of caution, at the cost of curbing normal emotional responses. Victims might be eager to avoid lasting pain, wrongdoers the full sting of self-examination.
"The impulse is to help people to not fall apart. You don't want to condemn that," says Kass. "But that you would treat these things with equanimity, the horrible things of the world, so that they don't disturb you . . . you'd cease to be a human being."
The very idea of PTSD has been attacked as a social construction, a vague catchall that provides exculpation for the misdeeds of war. But researchers are trying to prevent the onset of a disease, not change the social circumstances that bring it about. James L. McGaugh, a neurobiologist at U.C. Irvine whose study of stress hormones and memory consolidation in rats is one of the cornerstones of the effort, acknowledges the ambiguities but comes out swinging in defense of his work. "Is it immoral to weaken the memory of horrendous acts a person has committed? Well, I suppose one might make that case. Some of your strongest memories are of embarrassments and of the guilty things you did. It doesn't surprise me at all that people would wake up screaming, thinking of the young children they killed in Vietnam," McGaugh says. "But is treating that worse than saying, 'Don't worry if your leg is shot off, we've got penicillin and surgery to prevent you from dying of infection'? Why is it any worse to give them a drug that prevents them from having PSTD for the rest of their lives? The moral dilemma is sending people to war in the first place."
Nevertheless, fellow fear researcher Dr. Gregory Quirk of the Ponce School of Medicine, in Puerto Rico, is troubled by how his work might be used if it progressed from studies of rats to therapies for humans. He argues that fear isn't created and degraded in the amygdala alone, but is also unlearned in the prefrontal cortex, which in PTSD patients is only weakly active. Quirk thinks a physician could stimulate those areas with magnets while patients view the images they fear, and could thus restore balance to the mind. With that same method, he says, firemen could stave off episodes of life-threatening panic. "Certainly the military might be interested in something like that," he says. "If this would be used to go against fear that's important for survival or morality, I would have a problem with that."
There are reasons to believe our military would covet mastery of Quirk's technique in humans. People at war dehumanize their enemies to make killing more palatable. Now, in the war on terror, our modern cultural taboos against torture are fraying. Put yourself in the room then. The commission of heinous acts, even deliberate torture, can also visit lifelong torment on perpetrators who aren't hardwired very well to be sadistic. The sounds of screaming?a primordial alert that mortal danger is near?trigger those damning hormones even in the torturer.
And couple Quirk's magnetic manipulation of the brain with this: "One of the horrible things I discovered after the Gulf War was that, because of the coeducation of wars, as it were, male soldiers were given extensive desensitization training to make them able to hear women being raped and tortured in the next room without breaking," Kass says. "It's a deformation of the soul of the first order. I cannot speak about it without outrage."
But a trauma-born irrational aversion to necessary war?pacifism in the face of an expanding evil?isn't healthy either. "Such emotions can blind us as well as make us wiser," says Howe. "It's possible that these kinds of drugs would help patients see in a clearer way." On the flip side, could anyone possibly maintain that Ahab was a better captain for not having been chemically mollified after the white whale bit off his leg?
An uncomfortable reality is that war isn't an aberration; it has a very codified place in our culture. We agree through treaties to normalize it. We demand punishment for soldiers who violate those treaties, though more often those from the losing side. But we don't deny them medical treatment. And one needn't have committed a war crime to feel wracked by sorrow. "In my dreams I meet six Vietnamese people I murdered. Whether they had a gun on them is irrelevant," says Romo, who, as a 19-year-old lieutenant, served as a platoon leader in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in 1967 and 1968. His ticket home was as a body escort for his similarly aged nephew, who served in the same unit. "I returned to the United States on my nephew's dead body," he says.
Romo and veterans like him have taken it upon themselves to use their experiences to teach peace. But veterans torn apart by PTSD don't have a choice about being Exhibit A in the case against war. "When you see what can happen to a young person, it passes on in a very real way, not in a history-class sense, that reality of what war and blood really is," he says. Who are we to impose this emotionalalbatross on soldiers? As a nation, we elect our leaders. It seems unjust to make veterans a special class to suffer for our sins in wrongheaded wars, or pay a continuing price for victory in the "good" ones.
"That's a heavy burden to put on people to preserve the morality you're talking about," says Dr. Roger K. Pitman of Harvard University, who's leading the propranolol study in people fresh from car accidents. "By that same logic, if you could make a lightweight bulletproof garment for soldiers we still shouldn't do it. For moral reasons we ought to make them able to be shot, to preserve the cost of war, the deterrent to war. But we work to prevent our soldiers from being shot, and I say there are mental bullets flying around there, too."
There's another context to be considered as well, McGaugh notes, one that was made clear by the recent demand from representatives Charles B. Rangel of New York and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan that we reinstate the draft to address racial and economic inequities. "Who are our soldiers?" McGaugh asks. "They are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Very few of their daddies go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton."
But PTSD doesn't result solely from war. When Kass first heard of McGaugh's research, at a presentation in October, he had a far more intimate horror in mind: rape. "At fraternity parties they'll be popping Ecstasy at night and forgetfulness in the morning," he growls.
The victim would be an obvious candidate for an anti-trauma drug. Would dulling her emotional memories of the event help her to endure the lengthy, perhaps humiliating, pursuit of justice through the courts, or would it rob her of the righteous anger she'll need to persevere and perhaps the empathy to later help other victims? The rapist is part of the equation too. If his victim stabbed him in her own defense, no doubt he would be bodily healed. No physician could refuse to treat him. "If such a person had PTSD stemming from the circumstances of the act, he could be a candidate [for therapy]," Pitman says.
How much of our remorse do we have a right to dispense with, and how much exists in service to others, a check on our worst impulses? "Each experience we have changes our brain and in some sense alters who we are," says Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux of NYU, who studies emotional memory. "The more significant the experience, the more the alteration. We have to decide as a society how far we want to go in changing the self. Science will surely give us new and powerful ways of doing this. Individuals may want more change than society wants to permit."
New Experimental Non-Lethal Weapons: psychotropic, central nervous system depressants
Sep. 30, 2002
Its mission seems as humane as it is clear: to develop "weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment."
To some critics, however, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate ( JNLWD ), established by Congress in 1997 under Marine Corps command, is obsessed with developing a high-tech arsenal that contravenes U.S. and international law.
"Forcing drugs on large crowds of civilians is not a cool and high-tech war of tomorrow," said Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project , an international network of activists against biotech weapons. "It's not gee-whiz, it's not Star Trek, it's not our big, bright technological future. It is sick and repugnant.... It is illegal."
Other critics contend non-lethal weapons are too soft a solution. According to a report by Lt. Colonel Margaret-Anne Coppernoll of the Army National Guard, non-lethal weapons "not only fail to strengthen the nation's position when dealing with (irrational) adversaries but convey that it is too squeamish to inflict serious harm on enemies or to accept casualties."
But one member of a National Academy of Sciences panel assessing the role of non-lethal weapons maintains that the truth is situational.
The panel member, who requested anonymity pending the release of the group's report later this year, said: "There is no such thing as a lethal or non-lethal weapon; the determinant is the application."
The panel member used the Cold War nuclear arms race to illustrate the point.
"It is a tough stretch to envision a scenario for the non-lethal application of a nuclear bomb, yet we and the Soviets fought the Cold War almost entirely with nuclear weapons. And, at least after the long-term effects of exposure to radiation were understood and taken into account in testing, we never killed a soul," the panel member said.
"All those latter-day nuclear bomb tests weren't really tests -- the science was proven. They were the strategic use of the most deadly weapons ever invented to impress and give pause to a sworn enemy who might be considering an attack.
"The amazing thing was it worked brilliantly. Nuclear deterrence was the most successful enforcer of peace between superpowers in the history of mankind."
The source cited "taggants" -- invisible bio-organisms that are painted on a small part of a structure, grow until they cover the entire building, and can be remotely triggered to illuminate and provide a homing signal for bombers or missiles -- as an example of an "ethically neutral" JNLWD project.
"Paint a taggant on an oil-storage tank and it's a non-lethal weapon," the panel member said. "Paint it on a munitions factory and it's a lethal weapon."
A survey of a few JNLWD projects makes clear the difficulty of classifying non-lethal weapons technologies.
Item: calmatives, better known as psychotropic, central nervous system depressants or, more simply, downers. The JNLWD is studying their use -- including such substances as fentanyls (an ultra-potent, heroin-like synthetic) and rohypnol, aka "roofies," the so-called date-rape drug -- as crowd-control mechanisms. Opponents say the use of all such drugs is banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Sunshine Project claims the JNLWD has an "advanced development program for long-range delivery devices for (such) chemicals, in particular a 'non-lethal' 81mm mortar round with a range of 2.5 kilometers which is designed to work in standard-issue U.S. military weapons (like) M252 mortar."
The anti-bioweapons group also accuses the JNLWD of considering the use of the sedative Precedex , which increases a patient's sensitivity to electroshock, as an instrument of torture.
Item: active-denial weapons (ADWs), which fire wide-angle 95 gigahertz electromagnetic waves that heat water molecules in the outer skin and cause debilitating pain. Critics contend ADWs target innocent bystanders as well as enemies, and say the temptation to crank up the power to "kill" level may prove irresistible.
Item: genetically engineered anti-material agents (GAMAs), man-made micro-organisms that eat things like concrete, metal, asphalt, paint and plastic. GAMAs could theoretically be used to slowly and stealthily destroy military airstrips -- or create World Trade Center-magnitude disasters.
Opponents say GAMAs violate a Geneva Protocol, ratified by Congress in 1975, prohibiting bacteriological weapons. Proponents say non-lethal bioengineered substances are exempt.
Item: veiling-glare lasers. Researchers hope wide-angle laser beams in the violet to ultraviolet spectrum will blind enemies by making their eyes fluoresce, that is, glow.
The JNLWD says temporarily blinding enemies is legal under a 1996 Geneva Convention vision-weapon protocol. Critics say such weapons could cause permanent eye damage, making them illegal.