The freedom of assembly “is the individual right to come together with other individuals and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests.” This is a widely recognized human, political and civil right. It is explicitly guaranteed in many international human rights conventions, and many national constitutions, including the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
However, it is often the case that governments see the personal freedoms of their citizens as impediments, liabilities, and threats to its power. This thrust is usually labeled “maintaining order.” To this end, governments will organize specialized units of labor called police into enforcement agencies, equip them with instruments of coercion, and shield them with legal protections. Admittedly, the realities of human nature, and the wide spectrum of observed human behavior justifies some of this effort.
In our capitalist societies, the maintenance of social order has become both an industry and an infrastructure. When these operate to protect and even advance individual freedoms, human rights and personal safety, then they justify their methods and their existences. This is not uniformly the case, as is too painfully obvious to many who have witnessed or endured the abuses of police and prosecutorial powers by careerists advancing their personal agendas. For this reason, society justly demands that there be a rather intrusive oversight of police, judicial and prosecutorial professionals, and many restrictions on the technologies and methods they are allowed to use. The purpose of a justice system of authentic social value is to achieve 100% success at safeguarding the rights of the innocent; it is not to achieve 100% success at ensuring the punishment of the guilty. The latter goal demands a continuous and significant sacrifice of innocent people. Such sacrifice is unconscionable in any justice system that includes capital punishment.
Just where is the boundary between lawful freedom of assembly and the unlawful “right to riot?” (As an aside, we must allow for the logical possibility — even the social necessity in extreme cases like the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza Strip — of a lawful right to riot). The traditional police technologies for containing unruly assemblies, lawful and unlawful, include: megaphones (public address systems), truncheons (sticks), plastic shields and body armor, deployment on horseback, high pressure jets of water, tear-gas and small arms fire. In more recent times, lightly armored assault vehicles (police tanks) have also been deployed.
Over the years, police responses to public assemblies have caused fatalities of innocents, spurring research to arm police with minimally-lethal technology that is effective at social control. From such efforts came the mechanical technologies of water jets (fire hoses), tear-gas bombs and sprays, rubberized truncheons, and most recently rubber bullets. Also, electrostatics was exploited to devise the Tasers in use today. Viewed from an authoritarian perspective, these are certainly improvements over straightforward military firepower, but still, people have been badly injured and killed by these “softer” forms of coercion.
The conundrum of finding gentle coercive force technologies against public assemblies is now seeking its answer through electronic technologies, specifically microwave and laser broadcast power. The National Institute for Justice, the research arm (or “Q Branch,” in James Bond parlance) of the US Department of Justice, is now testing candidate systems of assembly dispersal and control. Police forces will eventually be equipped with centimeter-wave microwave beam broadcast systems, similar to one devised by the US Army, to heat skin at a distance and elicit a flight reaction.
A second, and better developed device of remote control torture is a bulky “rifle” that combines visible light and infrared lasers to incapacitate people by blinding them for a period of time (“dazzlers“), as well as being able to heat skin uncomfortably.
Obviously, any non-lethal form of coercion is more easily used as an instrument of torture, for example during arrests, interrogations, and in prisons. The surreptitious and deniable misuse of such weapons by rogue law enforcement individuals would be harder to detect because of the minimal aftereffects.
Both the convenience of remote control torture and the absence of lasting physical evidence of its occurrence make these insidious weapons of authoritarian control over personal freedom as envisioned by the contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.
The best protection against such weapons would be the elevation of the social consciousness and political maturity of the citizens, generally, to achieve a greater sense of community, to both: ensure popular political power over the control and enforcement agencies of government, and to populate those agencies with individuals whose first allegiance is the protection of people’s freedoms rather than the protection of government power and its careerists.
Otherwise, we are burning away the actuality of the First Amendment. We are trimming our right of assembly to self-contained gatherings that cause no political disturbance, to virtual assemblies on the internet that create little notice, that cannot offer the challenge to entrenched power that is carried by the actual massed presence of our physical selves, united.