Why the hell are ordinary bombs called WMDs?

I was watching a clip on CNN


wherein they relate the case of a 19 y.o. arrested for making a bomb. Apparently, one of the pending charges is “possession of a weapon of mass destruction”. Wouldn’t such a charge be a bit prejudicial? Why not simply charge him with possession of a destructive device? (Unless, of course, the bomb is a radiological weapon)


I don’t know what the Pennsylvania law is, but there is a Federal law against the use, threat, or conspiracy to use a WMD. In a different part of the law, a WMD is defined as including a “destructive device” that would be like a conventional bomb, PLUS chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons. One statute prohibits all those weapons as WMD; it doesn’t seem like there’s another more specific statute that only covers conventional explosives. Perhaps Pennsylvania’s code reads similarly.

No radiological elements.

From the story, just atomized magnesium, potassium perchlorate, and potassium nitrate. Not exactly harmless stuff but not a nuke or dirty bomb.

Here’s the relevant law: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2332a

To summarize: According to federal law, a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ is a device that is any of the following:

[li]designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through toxic or poisonous chemicals[/li][li]a weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector [/li][li]a weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life OR[/li][li] any ‘destructive device’ - anything designed as an explosive, or a weapon with a bore greater than 1/2" diameter (excluding shotguns)[/li][/ol]

There are a number of specific exceptions for stuff like flare guns, pyrotechnics, etc, and a general restriction that the item in question must be ‘designed or redesigned’ to function as a weapon, but according to the law, any sort of bomb qualifies, even if it doesn’t contain nerve gas or nuclear material.

So, Saddam had WMDs after all?

IMHO, this is sort of like Godwinizing in the sense of rhetorical escalation.

Bombs, while bad are not on the scale of CBRN weapons. Curiously, that definition does not include nuclear weapons. Guess they are ok.

Back to my original question though, namely wouldn’t such a charge be a bit prejudicial?


Seems to me like Law Enforcement has adopted and adapted a Military/Diplomatic term for it’s own use.

How does rule 3 above not qualify?

I suppose it does, but that is hardly the big deal when it comes to nukes.

It occurs to me that if the authorities thought you had a nuke, they wouldn’t try to arrest you.

Nuclear weapons would qualify under either the ‘harmful radiation’ or the simpler ‘explosive’ conditions.

The law defines the device he is accused of having as a weapon of mass destruction, so he’s charged with the possession thereof. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Suppose we defined a crime called Destroying the Innocence of Youth as possession of more than 4 oz. of cocaine. Would the charge be in anyway prejudicial to the defendant?


I believe the concept of prejudice refers to evidence and testimony that may be accepted in court; not judicial review of whether a legislature named a law “correctly.”

For example, you might think that someone being charged with a violation of the PATRIOT Act is “prejudicial,” but that doesn’t give a court the power to rewrite a statute. Only the legislature can change the words that appear in statute.

It’s simple; they classify them as WMDs so that they can overreact and scream “WMD!!!” to the sheeple.

Let’s not be so hasty in judging the cops.

(emphasis added in quotes)

Of course, the prosecutor can always drop any charge he deems inappropriate.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. I suppose I am just ranting about the “WMD” label.

When Did IEDs Become WMD? : http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2010/03/when_did_ieds_become_wmd.html

Weapon of mass destruction charge, explained : http://www.salon.com/2013/04/22/weapon_of_mass_destruction_charge_explained/

This linky is to a .pdf called Defining “Weapons of Mass Destruction” published by the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Defense University: http://www.ndu.edu/press/lib/pdf/CSWMD-OccasionalPapers/CSWMD_OccationalPaper-8.pdf

I miss the days when those things were called “infernal machines”.

There’s a long tradition of, um, hyperventilation when it comes to naming offences. For example, the offence known as “unlawful carnal knowledge” or “sexual penetration of a minor” in other common law jurisdictions is often called “statutory rape” in the US, even though the minor may have participated enthusiastically in the act. “Kidnapping” originally referred to stealing children for use as slave labour; it now refers to unlawful detention of a person of any age for any (unlawful) purpose. And so forth.

When was this defined that way? Was it a post-9/11 thing? Timoth McVeigh was not charged with using WMD as far as I know.

This seems a badly written law that makes no one safer. Most people would not consider (almost by definition) a regular bomb to be a WMD. As it stands the guy in the OP might as a well have had a go at making an anthrax bomb, as he was going to get the same time anyway.

Edit - I stand corrected: McVeigh was indeed convicted of using a WMD. My point still stands though.

You could say that any charge could be prejudicial to the defendant. Jaywalking, foppery, murder, etc. The court is supposed to make it clear that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

I think you misspelled “politicians.” Law Enforcement does not make the laws they just…well it’s right there in the name.