More harm than good
Stephen Coleman conducting research into the military possible use of non-lethal weapons. Photo: Jay Cronan
DOCTOR Stephen Coleman is an internet hit. What makes the Canberra man's story amazing is not the fact more than 250,000 people have watched a video of him online.
It is that the video is 17½ minutes long. And it is a lecture on ethics.
''It does surprise me a bit,'' says Coleman, a middle-aged teacher at the University of NSW campus within the Australian Defence Force Academy.
His video is no sugar hit for the internet trawlers who want something quick, entertaining, bizarre and stupid. In it he uses, of all things, Powerpoint slides to demonstrate his points.
But it now has 50,000 more online views than, for example, a 32-second video of a British rugby union fan winning a couple of hundred thousand pounds in the half-time break by kicking a ball and hitting the crossbar on the goalposts.
Coleman's video - 256,800 hits and counting - is about the use of non-lethal weapons by people in the military. These are weapons which aren't supposed kill people, such as capsicum spray and rubber bullets.
They are usually used by police but are increasingly being introduced to the military across the world. And the conclusion of Coleman - a man who in his spare time has learned to make balloon animals, breathe fire and ride a unicycle - is that there are many dangers in the military using weapons supposed to be much less harmful than guns.
Coleman flicks up a slide which delves into police shootings nationally related to a handful of deaths a year. In the video, he tells the audience of 300 people in the auditorium capsicum spray was introduced in Queensland a decade ago to give police an option between shouting and shooting.
Then he asks his audience: How many times did police use the spray in the first two years? Remember, the spray was brought as a way to stop police shooting and killing people, he says.
The answer? 2226 times.
''I'm going to go out a limb here and say if police didn't have pepper spray they wouldn't have shot 2226 people in those two years,'' Coleman says as the audience chuckles.
''In fact, the suspects were only armed in about 15 per cent of these cases. [The spray] was frequently being used on people who were passively non-compliant. People not following directions as if to say 'we'll give them a shot of the pepper spray, it will work out better that way'.''
To boil down his argument, shooting requires military personnel to carefully choose where they aim. Giving them non-lethal weapons may allow them to indiscriminately harm innocent people.
And weapons thought to be non-lethal can always turn out to be lethal in some situations.
As an example, gas pumped into a Moscow theatre to subdue terrorists in 2002 ended up killing more than 120 hostages partly because of poor ventilation.
The non-lethal weapons being rolled out to armies across the world include a shotgun which fires rubber pellets and a laser beam which dazzles the enemy.
Most frightening of all for civilians is a truck which can microwave a crowd from 500 metres away. The so-called pain ray heats the water and fat molecules inside peoples' skin as a way to get them to move out of the way. Too bad if the military doesn't see a protester lying on the ground. Experts say the pain ray could cause second- and third-degree burns.
Non-lethal weapons - some call them ''less lethal'' because rubber bullets and Tasers have been known to kill people - are gaining popularity with the military as soldiers are flown in to act as police in more conflict zones.
This itself has the potential to confuse soldiers, a problem Coleman covers in his soon-to-be released book Military Ethics (Oxford University Press).
Military peacekeepers in places such as the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, for example, already were confused about their rules of engagement. Some in Rwanda were even captured and killed because they were not sure whether they could fire back.
Coleman gave his talk at last year's TEDxCanberra conference, an annual one-day get-together of people with big ideas on all sorts of topics. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, an organisation which grants licences to hold conferences to discuss ideas worth spreading.
The video of Coleman's lecture was chosen to be shown on the international TEDx website and at one point garnered more than 30,000 hits a day.
Coleman received a wide range of feedback to his talk from viewers around the world.
''Some people say 'you just have no idea','' he says.
TEDxCanberra will hold its fourth event in the ACT on September 8. Speakers include Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt from the ANU, Canberra carer Sally Richards and Canberra dance company Bliss. Musician Helen Perris, economist Andy Stoeckel, memory athlete Daniel Kilov, youth advocate Samah Hadid, youth representative Hannah Coleman, abortion rights activist Leslie Cannold and knowledgeable shark observer Vic Peddemors also will speak.
Tickets cost $85 a person and go on sale July 27. TEDxCanberra newsletter subscribers can buy tickets two days earlier.