Why the Justice Department’s charge against the Boston bomber is ridiculous.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Maybe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction after all.

An 11-page federal criminal complaint charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving alleged Boston Marathon bomber, with "unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction … against persons and property." The WMD in question was, the document explains, "an improvised explosive device."

Give me a break. Even granting that the language of the law is not the same as the language of everyday speech, it’s ridiculous to call the bombs that went off in Boston "weapons of mass destruction." If any old bomb can be called a WMD, then Saddam most definitely had WMDs before the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago. And if an IED is a WMD, then Iraq actually ended up with more WMDs after the U.S. invasion than before (and isn’t entirely rid of them yet).

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m as horrified by the Boston Marathon bombings as anyone else. They were an act of senseless cruelty, killing three innocent people and injuring more than 200, many of them quite seriously. If Tsarnaev is guilty, he deserves to (and surely will) be punished to the full extent of the law. (Since this complaint was filed in federal rather than state court, the maximum penalty is death.)

But the crude Popular Mechanics-style devices used in the bombings — pressure cookers retrofitted with explosives — do not fit any logical definition of WMDs. To stretch the meaning of "weapon of mass destruction" this far renders entirely meaningless a phrase that was already too crudely propagandistic to warrant much respect.

The linguistic fault lies not with prosecutors but with Congress, which in the interest of expanding prosecutorial powers broadened the legal definition of "weapon of mass destruction" until, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired put it, federal statute could no longer distinguish "dangerous weapons from apocalyptic ones." Under 18 USC §2332a, a weapon of mass destruction might be what it’s always been understood to be — a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. But it can also mean any bomb, grenade, or mine, any rocket with a propellant charge exceeding four ounces, or any missile with an explosive charge exceeding one-quarter ounce. A July 4 cherry bomb, if deployed with sufficient malice, would suffice.

No one minds the hyperbole when it comes to the Boston attacks because the perpetrators of this crime committed an unusually gruesome murder. But the term "WMD" also applies to international relations. Mere possession of WMDs has, in the recent past, been used to justify invading a country and overthrowing its leader. Does the United States really want to put on notice every nation whose military arsenal includes bombs, grenades, and/or mines that they could be next? If we did, our only allies might end up being Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco, and the Vatican. (How many WMDs does the pope have?)

Obviously there’s little danger of that; the diplomatic use of the term remains restricted to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. But in truth the phrase "weapon of mass destruction" has always been overly broad. It was first used in November 1945, when the United States, Britain, and Canada jointly issued a statement calling for international control of atomic weapons (which these same countries had, three months earlier, dropped on Japan). Acknowledging that new technologies might bring about even more horrible weapons, the joint statement added, "and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

Happily, no category of weapon was ever invented during the succeeding 68 years whose destructive power could come close to matching that of nuclear weapons. Happier still, after 1945 no nation again resorted to nuclear warfare, which might have extinguished human civilization.

But in 1947 the United Nations adopted the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" to describe not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons. And although the latter two categories of weapon are indeed terrifying, and ought never to be used by any nation or terror group, they never, as a matter of simple fact, became as destructive as nuclear weapons, and should not be thought of in the same category. Chemical and biological weapons are not, at least as of today, capable of extinguishing human civilization.

This may seem a pedantic point, but the Bush administration used the WMD label to muddy the question of whether Saddam Hussein merely had chemical and biological weapons (a proposition for which it was thought there was much evidence, though it turned out he didn’t), or whether he also had nuclear weapons (a proposition for which there was no plausible-seeming evidence even at the time). The confusion level got so high that the New Republic, in an editorial, demonstrated that it had come to think of chemical and biological weapons as the only weapons of mass destruction. The magazine justified invading Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was "the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them." In fact, as I noted at the time, U.S. President Harry Truman had possessed a much more fearsome category of weapon in 1945 and had, ahem, used it. Twice.

In characterizing the Boston Marathon bombers as wielding "weapons of mass destruction," we miss what was truly frightening about that event. It isn’t only terrorist masterminds who can harm us with weapons of unimaginable power. It’s also ordinary people moved by inexplicable hatreds using the simplest of tools. Weapons of minor destruction, in the wrong hands, are perhaps even more terrifying, because they’re so much easier to acquire, and so much easier to set off.

<p> Timothy Noah is author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. </p>