"Quantity has a quality all its own."
"You asked me once," said O'Brien, "what was in Room 101. I told you that you know the answer already. Everybody knows. The thing in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world." -- George Orwell, 1984
In the coverage at Wired of the Air Force's new Active Denial System for crowd control, I didn't see any mention of the agonizer. And yet, that's what it is, more or less: A device that induces searing, burning pain that's so intense, subjects cannot help but struggle to get away from it.
It works via millimeter-wave radiation. Wired (courtesy of the Sunshine Project) has thoughtfully provided a rundown of publicly available documentation. On a quick scan, it's hard to tell whether the pain is caused by heating in the skin or by some other interaction between pain-nerves and millimeter-wave radiation. But prolonged exposer to the beam can cause second-degree burns, so heating does definitely occur.
And there's also no mention in Wired's coverage of the applications for torture, which are painfully [sic] obvious to me. An uncreative sadist would leave a victim with second-degree burns after leaving the beam focused for too long in one spot. A creative sadist would hack together something like Gene Roddenberry's agony booth, to move the focus of radiation around to different sets of nerve endings, in order to reduce the effect of neurotransmitter depletion. After an hour or so, I'm quite sure just about anybody would be willing to tell us whatever we wanted to hear as long as it makes the pain stop. In room 101, the man who works the latch on the rat cage is your god.
A vehicle-mounted version is apparently being tested in Iraq right now. I'm very, very curious to know what Iraqis will make of it. I think they'll get the torture angle right away. And since the technology is pretty easy to replicate, I can envision disreputable dictatorships throughtout the world deploying copycat devices in the near future.