Political Animal


April 22, 2013 3:36 PM Another Search for WMD

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 22, 2013 3:52 PM:

    If it ain't chemical, and it ain't biological, and it ain't nuclear, then it's not a "Weapon of Mass Destruction."
    It's just a weapon.

    Otherwise, when some lunatic walks through a mall, hitting people over the head with a hammer, killing them, then that hammer could be classified as a WMD, too.

    Jeez, righties, I know you think saying "WMD" makes you sound smart, but it actually doesn't.
    Iy make you sound like cowardly imbeciles.
    And we already know that.

  • DFH on April 22, 2013 3:53 PM:

    WMD as a phrase was broad enough as a catch-all, and we-all caught it.

  • dbc on April 22, 2013 4:00 PM:

    In Massachusetts, we sometimes call these "infernal machines". See for example Massachusetts General Laws Ch 269 Section 12F:

    “Prohibited weapon”, any infernal machine as defined in section 102A of chapter 266, any stun gun as defined in section 131J of chapter 140, any rifle, shotgun or firearm as defined in section 121 of chapter 140 or any weapon included in the list of weapons set forth in paragraph (b) of section 10.

    Works for me!

  • schtick on April 22, 2013 4:40 PM:

    I'm as tired of hearing WMD as I am of terrorist. They are being overused and only for people that are foreign and Muslim.

  • Ken D. on April 22, 2013 4:40 PM:

    Saddam Hussein almost certainly did have a pressure cooker and some nails, so I guess I owe George, Dick, Paul and Condi an apology.

  • Quaker in a Basement on April 22, 2013 5:03 PM:

    As satisfying as it may be for prosecutors to press "serious" charges, I'd prefer to see them take fewer risks in cases like this one. I'd bet that Tsarnaev's attorneys will welcome the opportunity to quibble over the meaning of the term "weapons of mass destruction" in open court.

  • Robs on April 22, 2013 5:04 PM:

    I think that someone has confused WMD with IED.

  • dp on April 22, 2013 5:35 PM:

    I am as sick of the phrase "WMD" as anyone, but there is a legitimate public policy justification for its use here -- it enhances punishment for the use of non-targeted weapons, the use of which endangers multiple people rather than just the person the weapon is aimed at.

    Goofy catchphrase, but it does make some sense.

  • g on April 22, 2013 5:52 PM:

    Well, then I suppose Eric Rudolph used WMD's too.

  • arkie on April 22, 2013 6:01 PM:

    We could go back to using the term the military used for many years: NBC (Nuclear, Chemical and Biological).

    Classifying conventional bombs as WMDs makes no sense other than allowing politicians to scare the public.

    A bomb that killed three people is a weapon of mass destruction.

    A rifle that killed 26 is a Constitutionally protected weapon of self defense.

  • ShadowVT on April 22, 2013 7:11 PM:

    That's similar to Timothy McVeigh's charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, use of a weapon of mass destruction, destruction by explosives and eight counts of first-degree murder.

  • Steve on April 22, 2013 9:39 PM:

    How odd.

    Adam Lanza killed 27.

    James Holmes killed 12.

    Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13.

    The Brothers Tsarnaev kill 3.

    And yet they had the "weapon of mass destruction."

    Nice to know.

  • paul on April 23, 2013 9:35 AM:

    It's anything that by design kills more than one person at a time. And the law is a really good way to extort a guilty plea on lesser charges.

  • zandru on April 23, 2013 2:25 PM:

    I'm so old that I remember when the term "weapons of MASS DESTRUCTION" really meant something. Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to rubble, tens of thousands of people instantly vaporized. Now THAT's "mass destruction."

    I strongly oppose the dilution of a useful and frightening term like WMD. I also oppose the attempt to make something that was already a major, severe criminal act into something that would make the "9-1-1" bombings just a trivial sidelight.

    Tonight, I'll take my own personal "WMD" off the shelf and cook up a batch of beans. Unless we no longer have the right to use pressure cookers.