- When the United States invaded Iraq back in March 2003, one of its primary objectives was to track down and destroy weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) reportedly stockpiled by the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
By its own definition – and by U.N. standards – the United States was frantically searching for WMDs constituting three of the world’s most lethal armaments: nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons.
The search, apparently based on faulty U.S. intelligence, proved futile. But the acronym “WMD” became an integral part of military jargon worldwide as characterising NBCs.
Since last April’s bombings in Boston, Massachusetts, however, both the administration of President Barack Obama and the mainstream news media have offered a new definition of WMDs: shrapnel-packed, homemade pressure cooker bombs that killed three and wounded more than 250 during a marathon in that U.S. city.
"Comparing the weapons used in the Boston bombings with nuclear weapons in particular is ludicrous." -- Dr. Natalie J. Goldring of Georgetown University
That bomb has repeatedly been described as a “weapon of mass destruction”.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Security Studies Programme in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS the weapons used in the Boston bombings were improvised explosive devices (IEDs), not weapons of mass destruction.
Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are commonly grouped together as weapons of mass destruction, she said. Combining these weapons in a single category makes it seem as though all three types of weapons are equivalent to one another. They’re not, said Goldring.
"Nuclear weapons are by far more destructive than existing chemical or biological weapons. Even so, all three types of weapons have the capability to be massively more damaging than the weapons used in Boston,” she said.
“Comparing the weapons used in the Boston bombings with nuclear weapons in particular is ludicrous,” said Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
According to some military experts, the IEDs used in the Boston bombings are no different from the IEDs widely used against U.S. armed forces by insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, told IPS, “If you want to confuse people, you blur the lines of distinction between things and also situations.”
She said an improvised explosive device as a “weapon of mass destruction” is just such an example, as is the broad use of “terrorist” and “terrorism” in the aftermath of Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
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“We also have the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ – a tad broad, to say the least,” said Williams, who led a highly successful global campaign that resulted in a worldwide ban on anti-personnel landmines.
She said it is easier for the U.S. government to continue to prosecute its borderless “war on terror” if people don’t quite understand or see distinctions. It’s all “too confusing” and best left in the hands of the “experts” in Washington, she added.
Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at the Arms Transfers Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS the use of the term WMD to describe the Boston bombs has been perceived as “weird”.
He said most people would think WMDs are the serious mass killer weapons – nuclear, biological, chemical, and potentially radiological. However, said Wezeman, the term WMD has been used loosely from the time it was probably first coined in 1937 to describe more or less every weapon.
There seem to be in the U.S. official terminology some 50 different definitions, he said.
“Considering the U.S. official terminology, WMD would more or less cover every type of slightly larger explosive weapon – IEDs, hand grenades, artillery shells, small cannon – as used daily by ‘terrorists’ as well as armed forces,” he added.
"Of course for most people and for normal usage, WMD remains just the nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological (CBRN) weapons,” Wezeman said.
Goldring told IPS, “As horrific as the Boston bombings were, the number of casualties caused by those bombings was a tiny fraction of the likely casualties if one or more nuclear weapons were exploded in a city.”
She pointed out that scientists estimate that if even a relatively small (10 kilotonne) nuclear weapon were exploded in a city, the entire area out about a mile in every direction would be largely destroyed.
“Calling the Boston bombs weapons of mass destruction is a political statement. It makes no sense from a substantive perspective,” she said.
If the Boston bombs are weapons of mass destruction, Goldring asked, “Does that mean all of the improvised explosive devices used in Afghanistan and Iraq are also defined as weapons of mass destruction?”
That simply makes no sense, she said, adding, “IEDs have caused enormous damage to military personnel and civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are not weapons of mass destruction.”