At first glance, the bulky black box looks as if it is a product of Northrop Grumman or some other defense contractor. On it are images of crosshairs and rockets with descriptions of the device's technologies, including "Advanced missile load and release system," "Lock-on sequencing," and "Sensor Intelligence."
Is this some sort of anti-aircraft system destined for a Middle East buyer? No, it's the "Battle Tracker" -- the latest offering from Air Hogs that promises "head-to-head interactive combat" for children 10 to 12 years old. The "Battle Tracker" is one piece of a fearsome arsenal available in the toy aisle of your local Target or Wal-Mart.
It's also part of an arms race that, in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, should have us reevaluating the toys we give our children. With the “Battle Tracker,” kids are no longer playing cops and robbers, they’re simulating modern warfare.
Deserving reconsideration is a line of "blasters" from Nerf, the manufacturer that became a household name with its safety-minded footballs and sporting goods. Today, the company produces such toys as the "Elite Hail-Fire Blaster," a rapid-fire Nerf gun promising to "deliver a semi-auto barrage of darts as fast as you can pull the trigger."
You can still believe in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms and cringe when seeing the words “semi-auto barrage” in the toy aisle.
The “Hail-Fire,” along with a field of similarly sophisticated toy weapons, was among the most sought-after items this past Christmas season. But they're also a concern among child safety experts worried about what these kind of toy weapons teach impressionable children. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom has launched a campaign against these toy guns in response to the growing popularity of the high-powered imitation arsenal.
Of course, toy weapons have been a part of children's games for as long as kids could fashion a bow and arrow or slingshot or sword out of sticks and stones. And toy guns and rifles were idolized long before Ralphie asked for a Red Rifle BB gun in the modern classic, "A Christmas Story."
But there's something different about these toys. They're not meant for playing, they're meant for teaching war.
Take, for example, the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Quadricopter. A quadricopter looks a bit like a helicopter, but rather than the customary single rotor, has four rotors mounted on an X frame, one rotor at the end of each arm. They're often quite small -- less than a meter in width. The AR Drone is billed as the "first flying videogame" and can be controlled by an iPad or smartphone. It can travel at 65 mph, while reaching heights of four stories.
The AR Drone is not designed or priced for children, but teenagers, eager to employ the quadricopter's built-in high-definition cameras for aerial videography, are as eager to get their hands on one as they are to pass their driver’s ed class. And what's wrong with that? Isn’t the AR Drone just a 21st Century version of the model airplane hobbyists have been playing with for decades?
Ask -- as I did during a lecture I gave for the State Department's International Council of the Tampa Bay Region -- someone from Pakistan of what the AR Drone reminds them. They'll tell you it is America's Drone War, the one responsible for countless collateral deaths in that country, made available at the nearest Brookstone. That is how powerful -- and perhaps irresponsible – the United States is: Its citizens can not only own a collection of assault rifles, they can even build their own fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
A sinister mind might see horrible potential in “toys” like the AR Drone, with its ability to fly at high speed at one hundred feet in the air. Strap a half-pound of plastic explosives to its frame and suddenly it is a new kind of improvised explosive device – available at the mall for just $299.
This is the kind of gift many Americans just gave their children for Christmas. So much for the days when all a kid wanted was a BB gun.