Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Russian Hostage Rescue Shows the Danger of "non-lethal" Weapons

By Dr. Margaret McLean and S.L. Bachman

"Non-lethal" weapons appear to offer a battlefield ideal: defense without slaughter. Casualties could be held to a minimum. For chemical weapons, though, a thin line separates non-lethal from lethal use.

The Moscow hostage incident -- in which a supposedly non-lethal gas was used to put Chechen hostage-takers to sleep, and allow special military forces to free hundreds of hostages -- offers a case in point. More than 100 of the nearly 750 hostages died from gas exposure, and more than 100 were hospitalized.

The Moscow incident raised warning flags for Americans living in a post-9/11 world, where the United States may use new "non-lethal" weapons not only in peacekeeping but also in homeland defense.

A week after the Russian fiasco, the National Research Council, the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, released a report recommending the use of non-lethal weapons. The report calls for research on "thresholds for permanent damage or injury" for weapons ranging from loud noises to microwave systems to "calmatives" such as the gas used in Moscow.

The research council report says little, however, about the roles civilians may be called upon to play to ensure that non-lethal weapons live up to the ideal. Emergency doctors and others who are now training for chemical and biological attacks must also be prepared to counteract new bio- and chemical agents that U.S. forces might use to fight back.

As every doctor knows, and the Russians saw, a narrow threshold lies between disabling-but-safe and disabling-and-deadly exposure to toxins. The Russian government has admitted that its special forces used an opiate called fentanyl. Questions remain as to whether fentanyl was used alone, in combination with another chemical, or another chemical was the toxic agent. In any case, Russian authorities told some emergency personnel to have on hand an antidote, naloxene, to treat hostages who were exposed to the gas.

The Russian government failed, however, to promptly tell all emergency workers which gas was used in the raid, and provide enough doses of naloxene, or offer instructions in how much should be used.

Naloxene works only when administered quickly and in appropriate doses. In the gas-suffused theater, filled with overstressed, hungry hostages not in the best of health, dozens of people apparently overdosed on the gas. By the time the Russian authorities said fentanyl was the toxic agent, days had passed -- and the window of opportunity for saving many hostages had long since closed.

A similar fiasco could too easily happen during a hostage situation on American soil if "non-lethal" weapons are deployed, but emergency personnel aren't informed enough to ensure that the weapons don't kill. A weapon may not kill when used to defuse a disaster peaceably, but it could kill later if management of the aftermath is careless.

This article originally appearred in the San Jose Mercury News on Mon, Nov. 18, 2002.

Dr. Margaret McLean is director of biotechnology and health care ethics and S.L. Bachman is a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

For more ethical perspectives on the news, click here.


New Materials

Center News