Several countries are investigating the use of neuroactive compounds as a non-lethal way to deal with riots and other domestic crises. The idea is to temporarily stun people, or otherwise change their behavior, to help control the authorities (see page 950).
Russian special forces put that idea into practice in October 2002, when they sprayed a mixture of incompetent agents into a Moscow theater in an attempt to free some 700 theater-goers held captive by Chechen rebels. The exact nature of the mixture remains secret; Russian officials only disclosed that it contained an ingredient similar to the opium fentanyl. But this was clearly a narrow therapeutic window: about 130 hostages died as a result of gas inhalation.
This episode underscores the moral conundrum – will the rebels kill all the hostages? – which imposes a complete ban on the military use of politically unrealistic agents.
Instead, an acrimonious argument over non-lethal weapons control is now underway among states that have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention – which does not cover domestic riot control and similar non-lethal uses – with As well as the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which states that biological agents may only be used for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes”. Unfortunately, different parties may not even agree on how to define exclusions in treaties.
During this impasse, the broader community of life scientists must actively discuss the effectiveness and safety of potentially disabling agents. In particular, academics and non-governmental organizations involved in the debate should agree on a list of compounds that are likely to be used by military agencies, and publish it on the Internet. Scientists could then submit comments to help explain it.
Just listing potential agents does not mean endorsing their use. But by providing an accessible forum where scientists can engage directly on the issue of non-lethal weapons, it could help inform political debate – and prevent the disasters seen in Moscow.