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Was The Times Square Bomb A “Weapon Of Mass Destruction”? A Case For Redefining Term “WMD” So Public Understands Terror Threats Better

May 14th, 2010 · No Comments

U.S Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad would likely be charged “with an act of terrorism transcending national borders, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction [my italics], use of a destructive device during the commission of another crime, and explosives charges.”

I probably was not the only one struck by the use of “weapon of mass destruction” to describe the improvised explosive Shahzad was unable to detonate. Officials have said that the explosion and fire could have killed a lot of people in the busy area. But it would not have had nearly the scope of casualties resulting from some of the devices that are more commonly characterized as “weapons of mass destruction” (or WMD’s).

It may seem only semantic issue, but I would argue that the overly broad definition of WMD leads to confusion and a lack of public understanding of potential terror weapons. I have written about this subject before in regard to the WMD Commission. Its report last year argued that biological and nuclear weapons are much more serious (and are more accurately described as “mass weapons of destruction”) than chemical or radiological devices.

At present, it is most common to define a WMD for the public as a nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological device. The Commission report, however, pointedly focused primarily on the dangers of biological and nuclear terrorism, both of which could be absolutely catastrophic. By contrast, a chemical or radiological weapon could be very serious but would likely not cause as much lasting damage — closer in result to a more ‘traditional’ explosive such as the Times Square device. That’s why I think that the nuclear and biological should be put in a different category than the others.

Wikipedia details the range of definitions for “weapon of mass destruction” employed by different institutions. Most use the four weapon types. But under U.S  Criminal Law, “any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—bomb, grenade, rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces [113 grams], missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce [7 grams]…” is considered a “weapon of mass destruction”.

I believe that a vital part of educating and engaging Americans on terrorism is to give them a more precise sense of potential terror weapons. Combining nuclear and biological with chemical and radiological (and then adding traditional explosives) just muddies that understanding (particularly if security officials and other experts themselves have already decoupled them).

And while it may only be a matter of words, I would argue that the confusion hurts public preparedness efforts. Getting citizens to understand these distinctions is important not only so they are better prepared for each of them, but because it allows policymakers and responders to focus time, money and attention on the most dangerous challenges. I’m not saying that Shahzad and other terrorists (ie. alleged ‘Christmas Day Underwear Bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged under the same statute) should not receive any less punishment if they are convicted for using ‘conventional’ weapon. I just think there are valid public communications reasons for not calling their actions ‘use of weapon of mass destruction’.

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