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3D Guns

12 May 2013

3D Guns

By Gwynne Dyer

The story so far: Cody Wilson, who describes himself as a “crypto-anarchist” and almost certainly wears a Second Amendment belt-buckle, had a bright idea early last year. No government could ever oppress its people again, reasoned the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, if everybody in the world was able to manufacture their own guns at home.

Well, not everybody in the world, exactly, but at least everybody with $8,000 to buy a 3D printer on e-Bay, or access to one of the 3D printing shops that are springing up in major cities. So Wilson set out to design a gun made entirely of high-density ABS plastic that could be printed on a standard 3D machine. He printed and tested it, and last week he made the blueprints available online.

For those who are not clear on the concept (the rest may proceed in an orderly manner to the next paragraph), a 3D printer is basically a photocopying machine that sprays molten plastic instead of ink. But instead of doing only one layer on a sheet of paper, it does thousands of layer, one on top of the other, until it has formed a fully three-dimensional object. Like a gun.

There are not all that many 3D printers in circulation yet, but they are the Next Big Thing, and in five or ten years they may be as common as mobile phones. It would appear that a great many people are looking forward to that happy day, because in the first week after Wilson uploaded the blueprints for his gun, 100,000 people downloaded them.

Wilson is one of those political innocents on the libertarian right who truly believe that governments would behave better if everybody had a gun. He even calls his plastic pistol the “Liberator”. He presumably hasn’t noticed that the United States government carries on collecting heavy taxes and crushing the spirit of free enterprise even though most Americans already have guns.

Predictably, last Friday the US government mobilised to shut his little enterprise down. The Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance at the State Department wrote Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, demanding that his designs for a 3D gun be “removed from public access” until he proves that he has not broken the laws that govern the shipment of weapons overseas. (Is he really shipping weapons overseas? Don’t bother us with details.)

The government took that route because there has been an instant public outcry about the “Liberator” – but Wilson already has a licence to manufacture and sell the weapon from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As for exporting the blueprints, he also registered his operation under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), administered by the State Department, and has legal advice that it complies with the rules.

But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. There have not only been 100,000 downloads from Wilson’s own site. It has also been uploaded onto Pirate Bay (with no protest from him), and downloads from that site are going through the roof. So what does all this mean?

It doesn’t mean that terrorists are more dangerous; they have never had any trouble in getting their hands on weapons a lot more lethal than a single-shot pistol. It does mean that people can now make weapons that will not be detected by this generation of airport metal detectors, so it may soon take even longer to get on the plane. But that was going to happen pretty soon anyway.

What Cody Wilson has actually done is provide us with a useful wake-up call about the huge economic and security implications of this powerful new technology. The 3D printers will get better, faster and cheaper, and they will be able to produce much more impressive weapons. Forget about banning assault weapons; people will be able to make them at home.

More importantly, they will also be able to 3D-print almost any other mass-produced item whose components are less than a metre (three feet) long. This not only has serious implications for retailers of such items – the Wal-Marts of the world – but also for entire countries whose economy depends heavily on manufacturing and exporting items of this sort. Even the cheapest labour is probably more expensive than 3D printing.

So “outsourcing” will go out of fashion, but the impact of 3D printing on traditional employment patterns in the developed countries will be just as severe. Cars will continue to be built on (highly automated) assembly lines, but the most of the companies in the supply chain will collapse as the car manufacturers start printing the parts themselves as and when they need them.

Here comes the future again.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“For those…gun”; and “The government…rules”)



WikiLeaks and the State

23 December 2010

WikiLeaks and the State

By Gwynne Dyer

“Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.” Theodore Roosevelt, two-term president of the United States, said that, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange quoted him in a manifesto he wrote four years ago, adding: “The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership….”

By that criterion, how is the United States government doing after a year that saw first Pentagon and then State Department documents published by WikiLeaks in the tens of thousands?

In truth, none of the “secrets” that Assange has revealed are all that momentous. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was right when he said: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” Yet some of his cabinet colleagues verge on the hysterical.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on 29 November: “This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it’s an attack on the international community….There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.”

Endangering innocent people? Like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was urging the United States to attack Iran, or Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom a US diplomat described as being Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “mouthpiece? Neither man has doubled his bodyguard, nor has either country broken off relations with the United States.

WikiLeaks did not simply dump a quarter-million State Department cables on the Web. It has released only a few dozen documents at a time, each of which has been carefully edited in cooperation with five leading newspapers to ensure that no innocent people are endangered.

It’s puzzling. Some parts of the US government seem quite relaxed about Assange’s actions, while other parts seem determined to put him in prison for the next few decades. “We are talking about one of the most serious violations of the Espionage Act in our history,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law…they will be held responsible.”

How can someone who isn’t an American citizen, and wasn’t in the United States, have broken an American law? No way, technically, but the United States might still be able to get a close ally like Britain to hand him over if it could argue that Assange was actively spying on it.

That will be hard, since he almost certainly wasn’t. He had good legal advice when he set up the “dead letter box” where the leaks are collected, and it is designed NOT to reveal the sources of the leaks even to WikiLeaks itself. Indeed, Assange says that he never heard the name of the person whom the US accuses of being the leaker, 23-year-old army Private Bradley Manning, until he read it in the newspapers.

The United States cannot make a case for espionage against Assange unless it can plausibly claim that he encouraged and helped Manning to steal the documents. Given that it probably isn’t true, it can only do that by forcing Manning to say that it is true. That may not be impossible, because he has been held in solitary confinement for the past seven months.

He has so far refused to say what his interrogators want, but he is facing 52 years in prison if he is convicted of leaking the documents. He is entirely alone 23 hours out of 24, and even his hour of exercise takes place in an empty room where he walks figures-of-eight.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” as John McCain wrote of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “It crushes your spirit.” And once Manning is a pathetic wreck of a human being, they will offer him a plea bargain: a much reduced sentence for his own actions if he will also incriminate Assange.

Then the United States could lay a charge against Assange that might result in his extradition – although that is far from guaranteed, since nowhere do political crimes lead to automatic extradition. But does the US government really want to go all the way down this road?

The usual suspects out in the backwoods are howling for blood, so domestic politics demands that at the moment the administration must make a great show of outrage and vengefulness. On the other hand, the grown-ups in the government know that the way to get through the WikiLeaks drama with the least damage internationally is just to ignore it.

That is why Vice-President Joe Biden could say on 16 December that “I don’t think there’s any substantive damage” from the WikiLeaks episode – and then on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the following day, accuse Assange of being a “hi-tech terrorist” who is putting lives at risk. It’s called “talking out of both sides of your mouth,” which is what politicians have to do a lot of the time.

Which side should we believe? Obama’s people probably don’t know that themselves yet. Domestic politics will decide.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Endangering…endangered”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars,” is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Two Takes on Terrorism

2 May 2008

Two Takes on Terrorism

By Gwynne Dyer

“Terrorism,” like “fascism,” is one of those words that people routinely apply to almost any behaviour they disapprove of. We had a particularly impressive spread of meanings on display last week.

At one extreme, the US State Department released its annual “Country Reports on Terrorism,” a Congressionally mandated survey of all the incidents that the United States officially regards as terrorism. There were, it said, 14,499 such attacks last year. (That’s 71 down from the previous year, so there is hope.)

At the other extreme, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor and current nemesis, when asked to justify his earlier remark that the 9/11 attacks on the United States were “America’s chickens coming home to roost,” helpfully explained that the US had dropped atomic bombs on Japan and “supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans,” so what did Americans expect?

“You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you,” Wright elucidated. “These are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles.” So it was presumably God who selected a bunch of Saudi Arabians and Egyptians to punish the United States for its misdeeds against Japanese, Palestinians and South Africans.

Mass slaughter of the innocent as a tool of divine justice is a familiar concept in the Bible (Jericho, Sodom and Gomorrah, the seven plagues of Egypt, etc.), and it would have held equal appeal for the nineteen Arab fanatics aboard those hijacked aircraft on 9/11. The ancient Hebrews were quite partial to divine terrorism, too, since it served their purposes so well.

But divine terrorism doesn’t really qualify under the State Department’s definition, since God, even when he perpetrates “premeditated, politically motivated violence…against non-combatant targets,” is not acting as a “sub-national group or clandestine agent.” He is more of a sovereign Power in his own right. This puts Him in the same category as sovereign states, whose actions, however violent and even illegal, cannot by definition be described as “terrorism.” If you don’t believe me, ask the State Department.

So much for Jeremiah Wright’s attempt to define the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan as terrorism. It was terrible and terrifying, and it was intended to terrorise the Japanese people into surrender, but it was not terrorism. Neither are Israeli actions against the Palestinians, even when ten or twenty Palestinians are dying for every Israel victim of Palestinian terrorism, and a high proportion of the dead Palestinians are innocent civilians. Israel is a state, so by definition what it does cannot be terrorism.

Now that that’s clear, let’s move on to what the US State Department does define as terrorism. The first thing that strikes you, reading the “Country Reports on Terrorism,” is that 6,212 of “the terrorist attacks,” over two-fifths of all the 14,499 that it records for last year, were in Iraq. Might that be connected in some way with the fact that Iraq was invaded by the United States five years ago and for all practical purposes remains under US military occupation?

Algerian rebels used similar tactics against French imperial rule, including numerous brutal attacks on innocent civilians. So did the Mau Mau guerillas against their British colonial masters in Kenya, and the Viet Cong against the American presence in South Vietnam, and other people fighting against foreign occupation or domestic oppression in dozens of other countries. Their tactics were regularly condemned by their targets, but nobody tried to pretend that the world was facing a wave of irrational and inexplicable violence called “terrorism.”

Yet that is precisely the assumption that underlies the State Department’s annual reports on “terrorism,” and indeed the Bush administration’s entire “war on terror.” Or rather, it is the perspective through which the report’s authors want the rest of the world to see the troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, for they cannot be so naive that they truly believe the link between the presence of US occupation troops and a high level of terrorist attacks is purely coincidental.

You can see the same perspective at work in the distinction that is made between Israeli attacks on Palestinians (the legitimate actions of a sovereign state) and Palestinian attacks on Israelis (terrorism). Thus US support for Israel is also legitimate, while Iranian support for Palestinian militants makes Iran the “most active state sponsor of terrorism.”

Others play this game too – notably the Russians in Chechnya – but it is really an American innovation. Leading neo-conservative Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, famously declared in 2002 that “terrorism must be de-contextualised,” but the process was already well underway in practice. And so, deprived of context, terrorism sits there as a uniquely wicked and inexplicable phenomenon, while legitimate states and armies can get on with the business of killing people in legitimate wars.

Jeremiah Wright is a narcissistic and embittered man who says many stupid and untrue things (like accusing the US government of spreading HIV/AIDS among the African-American population), but you can see why he got a little confused on the terrorism issue.


To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Mass…well”; and “Others…wars”)