A common phrase with an uncommon meaning
FBI photo

A common phrase with an uncommon meaning


We’ve all become quite accustomed to the phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” and no longer bat an eye at the “WMD” abbreviation. It’s meaning has always been more political than substantive, but it’s understood to refer to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Even this formulation, though, has seemed inadequate, given that the severity and lethality of one of those three (nuclear) is so much greater than that of the other two (biological and chemical).

But even putting that aside, you might have noticed that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged today with one count of using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction in the U.S., and wondered how this fits into the contemporary “WMD” definition. He’s accused, after all, of using deadly explosive made out of a pressure cooker.

Spencer Ackerman, writing last month about a different case, has the answer.

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.”

What we may think of as a “weapon of mass destruction” and what the law may consider a “weapon of mass destruction” are not the same thing.

Rachel will probably have more on this on tonight’s show.