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Thursday, April 25, 2013

What Is A ‘Weapon Of Mass Destruction’?

This image from a Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security joint bulletin issued to law enforcement, shows the remains of a pressure cooker that the FBI says was part of one of the bombs that exploded during the Boston Marathon. (FBI/AP)

This image from a Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security joint bulletin issued to law enforcement, shows the remains of a pressure cooker that the FBI says was part of one of the bombs that exploded during the Boston Marathon. (FBI/AP)

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in the attack that left three people dead and more than 250 injured.

Federal officials have said that the devices used in the bombing were pressure cookers filled with low-grade explosives and projectiles including BBs and nails. Is that a WMD?

It turns out the legal definition of a WMD is pretty broad.

According to the statute, a weapon of mass destruction is a “destructive device” which includes “any explosive, incendiary or poison gas.”

John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, writes in Foreign Policy magazine, “perhaps the real question is not what is a WMD, but what isn’t?”

“It exempts guns with a bore of less than half an inch, so hunting rifles are OK, but Revolutionary muskets would be weapons of mass destruction – which explains why the shot was heard round the world,” Mueller told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Mueller explains that the definition of “weapon of mass destruction” is broad so prosecutors can use it as leverage in plea deals.


  • John Mueller, political science professor at Ohio State University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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  • burroak

    Is there such a charge call WMT: weapon of mass terror; and, if so, what is the cost of inflicting terror?
    Certainly, hundreds, thousands, were terrorized that day.

  • Jim

    The explosions in Boston were caused by IEDs, not WMDs. Words have meaning. We all have feelings, but that doesn’t mean we should start calling dogs ‘cats’.

  • Nukstick

    The definintion of WMD is very subjective. By description, the D is destruction, not mass death. The intention of any or even most weapons (not intended to kill a single person at a time) could be defined as ‘mass destruction’.
     The Boston bomb intended to kill or maim many, people and destroy ‘as much much as possible’ in terms of buildings and humans…In my opinion.

  • Jay

    A rose by any other name still smells…; I’m sure if J Miller lay in a Boston Hospital licking his wounds he would understand mass destruction. What a pompous viewpoint.

  • whatdidimiss

    The reason the feds charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with using a WMD was to get the death penalty on the table.  Mere murder, which is a state crime, is not punishable by death in Massachusetts.   I suspect the decision was a “political” one, to assure the rest of the country that this act of terrorism would be punished to “the full extent of the law.”  It’s not clear why these acts should be subject to federal jurisdiction at all, so maybe the Department of Justice hung its hat on the only statute it could.

  • David B

    The discussion of weapons of mass destruction was interesting in light of recent news from Yemen.  The United States would seem to be using “weapons of mass destruction” in Yemen, in Somalia, in Pakistan, and elsewhere.

  • Dan

    The bombs were clearly meant to kill a large number of people.  The fact that only three people were actually killed has no bearing on the intent behind the bombings.  They did not make crude bombs to minimize casualties–I can only assume they were hoping for even larger explosions.  And keep in mind, every single amputation was potentially a lethal injury resulting in exsanguination. Heroic individuals, including civilians, who risked similar injuries while they were stopping the bleeding, and the immediate proximity of several world class hospitals save many lives that would have been lost.  

    Also, I was surprised, and I expected the bombers were disappointed, at how relatively clear the sidewalk was when they walked down Boylston St.  There is no reason to assume they were hoping for anything less than people packed together shoulder to shoulder.

    I am not sure how the legal statute defining weapons of mass destruction is worded.  But Professor Mueller’s position that a potato gun would meet the definition under the statute surely has no bearing on the obvious fact that the actions of the bombers were clearly designed to kill large numbers of innocent people, indiscriminately, and in an instant.  The fact that circumstances thwarted there intent does not change my view that WMD is an accurate description of what they were using that day.

  • andic_epipedon

    Thanks for bringing on the guest to clarify the WMD issue a little bit.

  • Crewman7

    I would hope the interviewee was misquoted or was using a touch of hyperbole regarding muskets and the like.  Such weapons (often 0.58 and 0.69 caliber) are excluded under Title 18 USC Section 921 as “destructive devices,” because a musket is “…an antique, or is a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.”

  • Degan

    From a purely linguistic and etymological standpoint, I can’t disagree with Mr. Mueller’s perspective that the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” is legally ill-defined.  That being said, his interview was filled to the brim with a haughty dismissal of the incredible suffering Boston has suffered and not to mention a vague disconnection from reality.

    He laughed at the idea that three dead and several hundred wounded could be considered “mass destruction”, as though the people attacked indiscriminately were numbers he was crunching against a standard of which I don’t think anybody else has heard of.  

    He quibbled about whether or not chemical weapons could or should be considered WMDs when the term was invented solely for nuclear arms, further arguing that chemical weapons killed only .7% of soldiers in WWI.  For the record, out of 37 million casualties, that’s only 259,000 lives.  

    He argued that potato guns were technically WMD as though any judge would hear that argument in court.  

    He scorned the premise that a hand grenade could technically be defined as a WMD as though they were high precision weapons.  Maybe a hand grenade in a crowded bus or an elementary school classroom would change his mind.  

    Nor does the argument of nuclear weapons being the only sure means of mass slaughter hold any water.  In their military use, nuclear weapons killed far fewer in Japan than targeted firebombing by the US air command using “conventional arms”.  Even just Operation Meetinghouse, a single night of bombing is estimated to have killed over 100,000 Japanese civilians and left one million homeless.  

    Biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons do share some characteristics that say a laser-guided precision bomb does not: they can be difficult to use without putting civilians in harm’s way.  What’s missing from our legal definition of WMD is intent.  When a nuclear weapon is detonated in the vacuum of space, can it be considered a weapon at all?  Rather than thinking of this problem in terms of the weapon used, let us reframe it as one of intention, and rather than “weapons of mass destruction”, let the national conversation condemn “acts of mass murder”.  

    The United States engages in all sorts of questionable acts all over the world.  We all need to work together to end this cycle of violence.  But just as sickening to me is this intellectual distance displayed by Mr. Mueller, one hardly different than the distance between a drone operator in Nevada and his next victims.  Any regular moron can construct an argument about words.  But it takes a true idiot to look at this tragedy and use it as a point of contention about such trifling matters.  

  • Stefan Hofmann

    I’m sure there were lots of improvised bombs like this one in Iraq prior to that invasion – are there the WMDs that the government was talking about?

    Calling an improvised bomb a WMD is ridiculous. If that is a WMD, what then is a grenade?

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