I’ve been uncomfortable hearing the media refer to the Boston Marathon bombs as weapons of mass destruction. Now:
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“Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, a U.S. citizen and resident of Cambridge, Mass., has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, resulting in the death of three people and injuries to more than 200 people,” says a recent statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Whether that designation carries some kind of additional criminal penalty, I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised. There was considerable destruction, but did it rise to the level of “mass destruction?” I don’t think so. Having grown up under a nearly continuous threat of atomic bombs and resulting nuclear annihilation, I have a hard time reconciling that level of cataclysmic destruction to that of backpack bombs.
Weapons of mass destruction were nuclear bombs and radioactive stuff, chemical agents like poisons and gas, and biological things like small pox or anthrax weaponized for widespread death and horror. WMDs were things that continued to create death and damage, especially to humans, long after the initial explosion or dispersal of the materials. The FBI’s Website lists these four categories as the official weapons of mass destruction, although evidently there has been significant differences in interpretation over the years. Apparently, there are both political definitions and technical definitions and fairly indiscriminate use of the former.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, no one anywhere considered grenades or homemade bombs or standard artillery shells as the WMDs we could not allow Saddam Hussein to possess. U.S. and allied forces didn’t wear HazMat suits to protect themselves from regular bullets or RPGs. They put them on to counteract assaults by chemical and biological weapons, i.e. weapons of mass destruction. The threat to the world from Iran and North Korea is not based on those rascals having too many AK-47s and flamethrowers. It’s based on their efforts to develop real WMDs in the form of nuclear missiles.
A few clicks online turn up a wealth of discussions about what is and what is not a WMD. Going back to 1948, the United Nations sought a definition and got one from its “Commission for Conventional Armaments.” By a process of elimination, that commission determined, in effect, that it had jurisdiction over “all armaments and armed forces, except atomic weapons and weapons of mass destruction.”
Furthermore, “… weapons of mass destruction should be defined to include atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.”
That seems a sensible and realistic definition. That the FBI uses basically the same definition as the UN’s should prompt some concern. After all, the FBI is a significant branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. They should be in agreement about what is or is not a WMD. Otherwise, I would think there could be some unintended “taint” on evidence as it works its way from the FBI labs to the courtroom.
And there’s a darker concern here as well. “Hyping” explosive devices made with fireworks powder, BBs and Vaseline as WMDs seems a pretty cynical designation on the part of the Justice Department. In that context, it gives the agency a much bigger hammer than it should need or have. It gives me a sense of being manipulated into the parade wherein the “Emperor’s New Clothes” were displayed to a fearful and gullible public. That is, “don’t believe what you see and know; believe what we tell you to believe.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a WMD as a “weapon with the capacity to inflict death and destruction on such a massive scale and so indiscriminately that its very presence in the hands of a hostile power can be considered a grievous threat.” Related discussions note that the threat applies to humans, other life forms, man-made structures, natural things such as mountains or rivers and to the biosphere.
“Hey, Emperor, love the new look.”
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.