Threat inflation

No, a homemade IED is not a “weapon of mass destruction.”

In international law, a “weapon of mass destruction” is a nuclear weapon, a biological weapon, or a “chemical” weapon (i.e., a poison). The inclusion of chemical weapons in the list has never made any sense; they’re exceptionally nasty weapons (though no more so than anti-personnel mines) but they don’t cause the sort of mass deaths that justify the label.

Still, that’s the way the term is used, and only pedants like me are likely to complain about it.

In post-9/11 federal law, however, the term “weapon of mass destruction” has been twisted even further out of shape. If some clown in Texas was doing on-line searches for directions on making IEDs and to find appropriate targets, and then went out and bought some of the chemicals, he belongs behind bars and I’m glad the FBI nailed him. But to call a roadside bomb a “weapon of mass destruction” – to link it with nuclear weapons – is simply insane.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “Threat inflation”

  1. The phrase, “weapons of mass destruction”, was designed to facilitate semantic generalization of exactly this kind. It’s not pedantry to object to the term, which was used to gin up the illusion of justification for a major war crime: aggressive, unprovoked war. They threw nuclear, biological and chemical weapons into one lying pot, so they could spin out lurid fantasies in place of reasoned consideration of circumstances and evidence.

    We’ve blown American’s honor, two or three trillion dollars, a 100,000 Iraqi lives and a few thousand American ones, on this nonsense.

    I’d just like to point out that there’s another yahoo or two in Texas, still eminently worthy of prosecution, but it ain’t this clown doing google searches.

  2. So it turns out there were WMD’s in Iraq after all. Lots of them! All they had to do was water down the definition of the phrase. Orwell would be proud!

  3. THANK you. I was saying this same dang thing.

    Pedants must stand united! Just like when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor!

  4. I agree that the usages are problematic, but this isn’t a new or novel usage. Look for example at NC 14-288.8; that was passed sometime before 1983*, and includes explosive, mines, sawed-off shotguns, and other class 3 and 4 weapons as “weapons of mass destruction.” In my recollection, that’s been pretty common usage in state firearms law for at least 20 years, used almost interchangeably with the federal term “destructive device”.

    I find 1883 is the first session online, and there’s an amendment to 14-288.8 listed.

  5. If a shotgun is a weapon of mass destruction, then the term “mass destruction” has no meaning.

  6. @ Perspecticus

    You really ought to study your history a little better. Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The US declared war against Japan on December 8. Germany and Italy declared war on the US (although not required to under the terms of the Pact of Steel) on December 11, Congress reciprocated the same day.

    It’s very unclear what would have happened if Hitler had not declared war on the U.S. There’s no question that arms sales to the Commonwealth and Soviet Forces would have continued. But isolationist sentiment was still pretty strong and might have kept us out of the ETO.

  7. I had a friend in collage charged with possession of a deadly weapon for having a bamboo practice sword out in public. (way less dangerous than a baseball bat, basically.)

    Never sure if that sort of thing is about quota padding, leverage for plea bargains, or just inflating the prosecutor’s importance.

  8. I think the real distinction is that between sort of targeted murderers (“I am buying X so I can kill Tybalt”) versus killers of random bystanders (“I am buying X so I can kill whatever ten people are walking by at the wrong time”). The latter does seem (in various vague ways: utterly ugly intent, particularly disproportionate fear, a sense of unfairness) to merit a different legal response than the former. Can we construct a new word/phrase that makes the distinction clear? Call them “indiscriminate weapons”, maybe. “Innocent bystander weapons”.

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