What exactly constitutes a "Weapon of Mass Destruction?"

Politics Asked by Fred Morris Napier on December 13, 2020

There was a huge controversy because we didn’t find stockpiles of chemical weapons after saying there were WMDs. Now we have charged in court people who use an IED at a marathon with using weapons of mass destruction.

This seems like a change in terminology. So, according to international norms, is an IED a WMD? If so, why?

In the past I’d heard that the United States equated all WMDS. If you use a poison gas on us, we can nuke you, etc. But, if say the United States were to use this as a justification for dropping a nuke on Chechneya, my suspicion is that the rest of the world would disagree.

So, is a pressure cooker now a WMD?

2 Answers

As some of the comments have pointed out, the WMD definition is elastic. The Wikipedia listing is the usual starting point.

One framework boundary is that it used against non-combatants. Therefore, the US can nuke an SLBM launch platform (i.e., an enemy nuclear submarine carrying missiles) without it being a weapon of mass destruction because it's used against a military target. If the exact same device is detonated over a city it's a WMD.

Second is that there is no realistic shelter. Londoners were able to hide in the subways during the Blitz. This wouldn't have been true if the bombs had been chemical or biological. V2s were WMDs since they simply landed somewhere at random - no one could see or hear them, and there was no countermeasure for shooting them down.

Third is that it takes the form of a 'sucker punch' - you discover you're at 'war' after hostilities have commenced. Thus people attending a marathon have no idea someone intends to blow them to smithereens, whereas people in various parts of Israel are aware that rockets could be launched from the Gaza Strip at any time. Hamas and Hezbollah have made no secret of their intent to commit violence against people in Israel. While using rockets against civilians violates the rules of war and international conventions, they wouldn't be a WMD on this criteria taken alone.

The US government probably looks at intent when deciding what constitutes a WMD. While a device may be not kill anyone, the intent to promote panic in a crowded place and thus lead to consequential injuries or fatalities also makes it a WMD. Again, a kid playing with explosives in a drainage ditch has no intent of harming anything, the same construction in a theater doesn't have to explode, it only has to be discovered and incite panic.

Correct answer by Meredith Poor on December 13, 2020

"A weapon of mass destruction (WMD or WoMD) is a nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological or other weapon that can kill and bring significant harm to a large number of humans or cause great damage to human-made structures (e.g. buildings), natural structures (e.g. mountains), or the biosphere."

To the above post which couples the device with it's intent, there is no such coupling. To the above example, "a kid playing with an atomic bomb in a drainage ditch has no intent of harming anything .." still has a WMD.

Answered by AnaThema Kahn on December 13, 2020

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