A company in Israel, Odortec, makes a substance that is non-toxic and, the developers maintain, even drinkable. It’s only got one drawback:
IT SMELLS like raw sewage mixed with putrefying cow’s carcass…
And, apparently, it doesn’t wash out of clothing easily. On the bright side, the substance, called Skunk, is remarkably effective as a riot control measure.
Skunk, as it is appositely called, has been used by Israeli soldiers since 2008 to disperse Palestinian protesters. Now it has attracted the interest of law-enforcement agencies in America which, after riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, crave better ways to scatter rioters without killing or injuring them.
In Israel, where it’s been in use since 2008, the main complaint against it is that it’s been used against Palestinians.
Skunk has been used mainly to deal with the weekly protests against Israel’s “separation fence” that cuts through the West Bank; and increasingly over the past year at demonstrations in East Jerusalem. Sprayed from water-cannon, it has become the characteristic odour of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group, reports that it found no health hazard, but still criticises it as a humiliating method used so far only against Palestinians.
B’Tselem’s argument is that it’s used as a “collective environmental punishment” against Palestinians. Then again, that seems somewhat less harmful then bullets shot into a crowd, so as “separation fences” go, non-lethal but horribly stinky beats odorless but extremely lethal any day.
And it may be coming to an American city near you.
A report this week that Skunk is now being sold to American local police departments was initially confirmed by a Maryland-based company claiming to be the vendor; but then swiftly retracted. The company’s website, which offered the stuff in various-sized canisters, has since gone offline. In Israel, Odortec’s phone was also out of order and inquiries sent through its website remained unanswered. Maybe the whole thing just smells too awful.
Should this happen, or should a company here decide that this is a sufficiently viable idea that they want to run with it, what are the ramifications for the use of such horrible-smelling substances being shot at a crowd for the sake of dispersing it?
The obvious benefit is no one gets killed. At least not by Skunk itself, though there is always the potential of people being harmed or worse while trying to escape the odor. Of course, that collateral damage could happen with any riot control method, other than nicely asking people to disperse if they feel like it.
What about the downside to Skunk? Detriments can be very relative things. So it doesn’t wash out of clothes? Well, don’t wear your favorite jeans to a riot. Then again, a lot of blood can often leave a lasting impression as well.
But there is a very real downside, reflected in police adoption and use of stun guns. Tasers were sold to police as a non-lethal alternative to guns, which similarly seemed to be a pretty great thing, as it meant that people could be disabled without blowing a big hole in their chest. All things aside, Tasers were a better option than killing people.
Yet, we learned through the massive embrace of Tasers that they weren’t quite non-lethal, but less-than-lethal. Still better than a bullet, but not quite as easy-peasy as Taser International said when they were selling cops pallets of stun guns.
Even more significantly, the police grabbed them up under the non-lethal dogma, and immediately decided that they were not only great for deployment under use-of-force situations, but for pretty much any and every scenario where a cop decided he didn’t feel like exerting any effort or that the target needed to feel a little pain.
You can’t blame Taser for the fact that police misused them in every way they found convenient, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have become subject to rampant misuse.
Then comes Skunk. Perhaps it truly is non-toxic and, in itself, will cause no harm. But consider the potential ways in which Super Stink can be used for purposes other than riot control. Want to raid a house? Shoot some Skunk through the window and anyone inside will come rushing out for air.
But the house will be permanently stinkified, uninhabitable. What of other people who live there? What about children, because sometimes the cops do a less than stellar job figuring out who is inside when they decide to wreak havoc? What if someone else owns the place? What about neighbors in the building, or neighboring structures if the police are no better aiming the water canon than they are with their Glocks?
And if Skunk is used for crowd control, how would you like to be the network reporter covering the situation? What about perfectly lawful, peaceful, crowds exercising their constitutional right to associate to seek redress? Once the water canons are locked and loaded with Skunk, will anyone show the discretion not to pull the trigger so the cops can get back in time for the donuts coming out of the oven.
It’s not that Skunk is without its virtues. Indeed, anything that saves lives, even at the expense of noses, is something worthy of consideration. It’s that experience shows that when there are no permanent damages that can’t be ignored or swept under the rug, police have a tendency to test how far afield they can go with it, to suit their own convenience or purposes.
If there was a substantially greater degree of trust, that a substance like Skunk wouldn’t be abused, there might be less trepidation about its introduction into American law enforcement. But George Santayana’s words ring loud. And let’s face it, as little imagination as police have shown with regard to safeguarding constitutional rights, they have more than made up for it in the collateral use of weapons.