- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
The Supreme Court has doubts as to whether a domestic, if gruesome, argument is exactly like a full-blown civil war, and whether a scorned wife who burned the thumb of her husband’s mistress is in the same category as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The high court, led by Justice Roberts, heard arguments on Nov. 5th in the controversial case of Carol Anne Bond, the microbiologist-turned-Poison-Ivy of suburban Philadelphia who spread a toxic mixture on her husband’s lover’s doorknob, car door and mailbox, after she found out about the affair and the mistress’s pregnancy. As the mixture was orange, Bond’s target got away with a mere burn to the thumb.
Bond has been tried under a federal law implemented to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty. Solicitor General Donald Verilli wrote in his brief that the “law generally prohibits use of a chemical that can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to another, unless such use is for a peaceful purpose.” And because trying to poison your former best friend cannot be described as a “peaceful purpose,” Bond was accused of using a chemical weapon.
Several Supreme Court justices expressed their shock during the November hearing that the local case was prosecuted under the chemical weapons law. It is “unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution,” said the “flabbergasted” Justice Anthony Kennedy. Six of the court’s justices agreed with Bond’s lawyer who said that a treaty cannot give Congress “police power,” which is reserved for the state.
Conservatives are up in arms about the Bond case, accusing the Obama administration of governmental overreach, as the case could have been brought under Pennsylvania criminal law instead of a federal one.
“The questions raised by this case go to the heart of our constitutional system: Does the federal government, through the treaty power, have authority to trump our system of federalism and separation of powers? ” asked Republican Senator Ted Cruz in a Washington Post Op-Ed.
But the case raises another larger question — the definition of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Carol Anne Bond in her inept retaliation effort used an arsenic-based mixture, the ingredients for which she stole from her company and bought online. Bashar al-Assad’s government declared 1,290 tons of chemical agents and precursors.
Under U.S. law, weapons of mass destruction are defined as “any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors; any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector …. any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life,” and any “destructive device” which includes bombs, missiles, rockets, mines, grenades and “similar devices.” Finally, any type of weapon other than a shotgun intended for “sporting purposes” that can “expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter.”
In many cases, this broad definition renders the term virtually meaningless. In June 2012, Ryan C. Post of Lower Saucon, PA was charged with possession of weapons of mass destruction, otherwise known as illegal fireworks.
“They make booms in the sky,” said his lawyer. “That’s all it was. These may not be consumer fireworks, but they are fireworks nonetheless.” Post was a fireworks salesman and his charges were later downgraded.
In another case, in Wilmington, North Carolina, authorities issued warrants for Joe David, whose sawed-off shotgun was considered a WMD, because “the weapon was altered to make it more deadly,” according to a local paper.
The charge of WMD possession has also been used against an actual terrorist suspect. But it’s not that he had bomb components or some chemical agents in a duffel bag – he shot some grenades a few times. Eric Harroun, a U.S. Army veteran who has claimed to have spent several weeks with a known al-Qaeda affiliated group fighting against government forces in Syria was accused of “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction i.e. a Rocket Propelled Grenade, outside of the United States.”
Somehow it doesn’t seem right to lump together a dictator who has tons of sarin gas, a rogue vet who likes to carry around an RPG,