Weapon of mass destruction charge, explained

Tsarnaev is charged with using a WMD in Boston; since when did this designation include DIY pressure cooker bombs?

Topics: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, weapons of mass destruction, wmd, Boston Marathon bombing, Boston Bombings, Death Penalty,

Weapon of mass destruction charge, explainedFragment believed to be part of bomb used in Boston bombings (Wikimedia/FBI)

When you hear the term “weapon of mass destruction,” what comes to mind? A nuclear warhead? Biological agents? The sort of armaments so destructive, in fact, they are pitched as grounds for war. Homemade pressure cooker bombs — as we now know all too well — can wreak murderous, flesh- and bone-cleaving devastation. But are the devices used in the Boston bombings really weapons of mass destruction?

The Massachusetts U.S. attorney announced Monday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be federally charged with “using a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property at the Boston Marathon.” No one would seek to underplay the heinous act that killed three people and injured over 170. But the WMD charge already prompted some confusion, given the DIY nature of the tools used in the bombings. Nukes they were not.

Last month, before the marathon massacre, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman explored the way in which the WMD designation has become so expansive that it is barely descriptive. “U.S. law isn’t particularly diligent about differentiating dangerous weapons from apocalyptic ones,” wrote Ackerman in a post about possible WMD charges brought against Eric Harroun, a U.S. Army veteran who joined the rebellion in Syria. Ackerman noted:

The statutory definition of “weapon of mass destruction” refers to “any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title,” which in turn includes: a “rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces.”

Other weapons of mass destruction, legally speaking: Bombs. Grenades. Mines. Missiles “having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce.”

The law, as Charles Dickens wrote, is an ass. But to be fair to the lawyers, the problem resides within the term itself. “Weapons of mass destruction” are a bitter punchline, thanks to the war that the United States launched, ostensibly to secure ones that weren’t there. But the term endures, obscuring the fact that the holy trinity of weapons contained therein — nuclear, chemical and biological — are very different things.

In Tsarnaev’s case the invocation of a WMD is thus (by the letter of the law) appropriate, but it could also be politically expedient for a prosecution wanting to keep the death penalty on the table. As Bloomberg News noted, “If convicted, Tsarnaev faces possible execution in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, the same place Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was put to death. Prosecutors may later state whether they intend to seek capital punishment.”

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>