The Rockets’ Red Glare

Just what are "weapons of mass destruction," anyway?


If you thought that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003, you were wrong. Actually, Iraq had tons of WMD then, and it has them now, too — as does virtually every other country in the world. The United States, of course, has WMD — but you may be surprised to learn that it has had them for centuries, ever since the days when Francis Scott Key wrote those famous words about "bombs bursting in air." Key would have had no clue what a "WMD" was — but no matter. According to modern U.S. statute, the explosions he describes fit the definition just fine.

The term "weapons of mass destruction" came into occasional use during the Cold War, often as a euphemism for nuclear weapons — or for weapons yet to be developed that might have similar destructive capability. After the Berlin Wall fell, however, use of the term escalated greatly, and its meaning was much expanded.

In 1992, "weapons of mass destruction" was explicitly rendered into U.S. law as part of a defense authorization act and defined to cover not only nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological ones as well.

Then in 1994, the definition was expanded further as part of the Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act. According to current law — that is, the U.S. Code (18 U.S.C. 2332a) — the term "weapon of mass destruction" means:

(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
(B) 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;
(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life

And that ominous section 921 defines "destructive device" to be:

(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas —
    (i) bomb,
    (ii) grenade,
    (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
    (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
    (v) mine, or
    (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;

(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, 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; and

(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.


According to this definition, perhaps the real question is not what is a WMD, but what isn’t? Not only were the attacks that Key witnessed WMDs in action, but so were the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 1983 shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the pipe bombings (but not the shootings) in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

Lest this inquiry appear to be of only academic interest, consider that individuals have been tried and convicted based on the U.S. Code’s definition. Take the would be bomber of shopping malls in Rockford, Ill., who traded two used stereo speakers for a bogus handgun and four equally bogus hand grenades supplied by an FBI informant. He was later sentenced to 35 years for attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. (That would be the grenades, one presumes.) Were toy rockets, missile-propelled firecrackers, or paintball guns used for malicious intent, they, too, might qualify.

Because of their large bore, even Revolutionary War-era muskets satisfy the current legal definition. But at least we now know why that historic shot at Lexington was "heard round the world." It, too, was a WMD.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola