Another Search for WMD

Perhaps many readers were as flummoxed as I was upon reading that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with using weapons of mass destruction. But Danger Room‘s Spencer Ackerman explains the technical meaning of the term:

The actual bomb Tsarnaev allegedly constructed and detonated is pretty much the opposite of what people think about when they think “weapon of mass destruction,” a vague term that usually means a weapon carrying an unconventional payload, like a nuclear, chemical or biological yield. The FBI affiant, Special Agent Daniel Genck, confirms the bombs used pressure cookers for their hulls — “of the same brand” — packed with “low grade explosive” containing BBs and nails and a “green hobby fuse.”

Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal this ain’t. But, as Danger Room explained after U.S. citizen and anti-Assad fighter Eric Harroun, faced similar charges, “weapon of mass destruction” is a very broad category under federal law. Grenades, mines, missiles and rockets all apply. So do homemade bombs of the sort Tsarnaev allegedly constructed. About all that doesn’t apply are firearms and pyrotechnics gear. No one ever said the law had to coincide with military terminology.

We’ve argued all this helps speak to the definitional absurdity surrounding “weapons of mass destruction,” and indicates the infamous term ought to be retired, replaced instead by the specifics of what an explosive actually is or does. None of that bears on Tsarnaev’s case.

Yeah, I’d say the term should have been retired after the early days of the Iraq War, when it became synonymous first with a phantom, and then with a lie.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.