Noni Mausa on the Dark Lure of "Pain Compliance"

Noni Mausa looks at this story:

A video that shows Vancouver police officers Tasering Robert Dziekanski has now been viewed by at least 15 million people online.

The video and news of Dziekanski’s subsequent death caused an international outcry and spurred debate about the use of the electro-shock weapon. But despite the fact that police in Canada and the United States have been using them quietly – if not entirely without consequence – since 1999, few people actually know what Tasers are, how they work and why police and other agencies have them.

Fewer still are aware, as human rights advocates claim, that the weapon – intended to replace firearms in life-threatening situations – is more frequently used for “pain compliance.” That’s a euphemism for inflicting pain to get someone to do what you want.

The development of the Taser can be traced to a NASA researcher named Jack Cover who, in 1969, started to develop a non-lethal weapon that could be used by police to control unruly suspects … Cover surmised that a high-voltage, low-ampere electric shock would disorient and disarm someone long enough for police to assume control …

By 1974, he had created a device that featured a powerful battery pack attached to two darts with long, insulated wires. A blast from the handheld device sent the sharp darts flying at a target.

When the darts connected to an object – like a human body – it completed a circuit and sent a current of electricity through the object. That kind of shock can interrupt most people’s central nervous systems profoundly enough to render them helpless. It’s extremely painful. But, since the human body can’t store electricity, its effects are temporary.

Cover named the weapon Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle (or Taser) after his childhood hero, an adventurous youth from early 20th-century comic books.

When the weapon was finally approved for police use in 1998 – starting with the Orlando, Fla., force – it was quickly accepted and arrived in Canada the following year.

Modern Tasers deliver a 50,000-volt shock for five seconds and the darts can penetrate up to four centimetres of clothing as far as 11 metres [35 feet] away.

In interviews, police on both sides of the border were unanimously and enthusiastically in favour of the Taser as an essential piece of equipment.

“It’s a fact of life that police are sometimes confronted by desperate, violent individuals,” said one Ontario officer who didn’t want to be named. “And it’s a good feeling to know that you can stop that kind of person without resorting to deadly force.”

Studies in major cities in the U.S. – Canadian ones don’t make such information public – have consistently shown that the addition of Tasers to a police force’s arsenal leads to a significant drop in shootings by officers. In 2003, two years after introducing Tasers, Seattle reported its first full year without a shooting by police in 25 years.

But the problem is that while Tasers may be considered a non-lethal alternative to firearms, they can kill people..

Amnesty International … advocates a suspension of the Taser until a definitive study can set rules for its application and to end the use of Tasers when they are not replacing deadly force.

“They are just so effective and so easy to use,” [a spokesman] said. “They can easily be abused.”

Buxton points out that Taser Inc.’s own literature admits that 20 per cent of Taser use is for pain compliance. The officer who didn’t want to be named admitted that was the case, but that he’d never done it himself.

“Pain compliance is an unfortunate fact of life,” he said. “You can’t expect people who really don’t want to be arrested to do what you need them to do just because you ask them.”

Noni Mausa continues:


What interested me most about this article was the headline, presenting nonlethal pain as a “dark lure” to the police, wasn’t really explored very much in the body of the article. However, this was something I wondered about Tasers since they came into common use. It seems to me that not many police would shoot someone with a bullet just out of pure irritation –so messy, so noisy, so definite– however they might use a Taser, especially since it is touted as harmless and typically tested on the police themselves.

Similar is a new riot control weapon I keep hearing bits and pieces about — the one which can be beamed over a crowd like a flashlight and which causes a feeling as though the persons skin was burning. Here’s a pretty complete article from the BBC from last January:

The prototype weapon was demonstrated at the Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

A beam was fired from a large rectangular dish mounted on a Humvee vehicle.

The beam has a reach of up to 500m (550 yds) [about a third of a mile], much further than existing non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets.

It can penetrate clothes, suddenly heating up the skin of anyone in its path to 50C. [122 ºF]

But it penetrates the skin only to a tiny depth – enough to cause discomfort but no lasting harm, according to the military.

This device might only be used at first to disperse hostile crowds etc., as the article proposes, however I can’t imagine it would be more than days or weeks before it was used as a kind of large-scale community pain compliance device with a “dark lure” of its own.

Government use of waterboarding, which is presented as not much worse than a fraternity prank, Tasering, which is presented as painful but harmless, and this “heat ray” also being presented as painful but harmless all make the same ideological point: “Pure pain does not matter, except as it is useful to cow and control ordinary, dispensable people. If it leaves no marks, then there is no real harm and (even better) no proof.”

The “dark lure” is the lure of power, threat, even casual spite, without accountability.


This one was by Noni Mausa.