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Weapons in Search of a Name

We need a new name for WMDs.

I for one am sick of hearing about Weapons of Mass Destruction–those alleged chemical, biological and dirty nuke bombs that the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden are supposed to covet for use against us innocent Americans. I’m especially sick of hearing about them from President Bush, who has a way of slurring the words together into a kind of single noun.

What is the real definition of a weapon of mass destruction, anyhow?

Presumably it’s a weapon that kills a whole lot of people indiscriminately. More people than a land mine or a typical bomb, I suppose.

Okay, top of the list would have to be a nuclear bomb, then. That’s clearly a WMD. No contest. And who’s got those? Not Saddam, and not Osama. We do. Britain does. So do China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and (or so it and the White House claim) North Korea.

How about cluster bombs? Some of those things, dropped in an urban area or in the midst of an encampment of troops, could easily kill hundreds of people–maybe thousands. Ditto that new weapon built by the U.S. for use in Iraq, fortunately too late to be used: the MOAB (Mother of All Bombs), a 16-ton monster bomb so big it has to be pushed out the back of a transport plane. That sucker could kill tens of thousands of people if dropped in a populated area. Clearly both these are WMDs.

Likewise the propane bomb that was first used in the first Gulf War, and later in Afghanistan, and probably in the latest war in Iraq. This baby releases a giant cloud of propane which spreads over acres of land before being ignited in an enormous flash fire. Again, clearly a WMD. Note that these–up to and including nukes–are all weapons that are owned and used by the U.S. military.

We might well also consider inadvertent WMDs–the mines sown by U.S. forces that kill and maim thousands of innocents for years after a war ends, and the depleted uranium bombs and shells, thousands of tons of which were used in the recent invasion of Iraq, which incinerate their targets causing, sometimes, massive loss of life, but which also poison the environment with radioactive dust that will hang around causing untold numbers of cancer cases for a billion years to come.

Clearly, if the words Weapons of Mass Destruction are to mean anything, all the above weapons are WMDs. But when the White House or Downing Street or the Pentagon talk about WMDs, they aren’t talking about any of those things. They’re talking about germ weapons, about toxic chemical weapons, or about so-called “dirty bombs.”

Thing is, most of those weapons are either virtual–nobody’s ever used one or seen one–and moreover, if they were used, their kill potential would probably be pretty small–a lot smaller than some of the weapons that are now routinely used by the U.S. military.

Take dirty nuke bombs. Most experts say that these would be made of ordinary explosives embedded in some kind of nuclear waste products, such as uranium dust, cadmium, radioactive iodine or some other nasty chemical. The idea would be to blow the bomb, and spread the fall-out as widely as possible. But experts also say that the likely number of deaths from such a weapon, even if exploded in an urban center, would be small –perhaps at most a few hundred. More would probably die of the actual detonator explosion, if it were detonated in a crowded spot, than from any fallout. This is because in a developed country like the U.S., there would be treatments available for those who suffered contamination.

The biggest threat from such a bomb would be panic, and the commercial losses to properties that would have to be decontaminated before they could be used again. A dirty nuke then, far from being a WMD, is probably more of an ACW (anti-capitalism weapon).

Chemical weapons are even less scary. As a group of self-styled millenialist terrorists in Japan who tried deploying a Sarin WMD, killing only a handful of subway riders, discovered, it’s not that easy to make chemical weapons kill a lot of people. You need luck, because the weather has to cooperate, and a lot of control over the situation. Saddam Hussein was able to kill a lot of his own people and a lot of Iranians back during the Iran-Iraq war because he had control over the skies, and was able to drop numbers of poison gas bombs in towns or over battlefields at the time of his choosing. Terrorists would have a hard time replicating this. More likely would be a single bomb, and again, in a country like the U.S., should such an attack happen, the resources are there to minimize the impact, as was the case in Tokyo. Once again, it’s a stretch calling such weapons, especially the home-made weapons terrorists would likely use, WMDs.

Germ weapons are even more problematic. Again experts say that most germs that could cause disease are not that easy to disseminate. Some, like Anthrax, can be very dangerous, but don’t spread beyond those initially exposed (look at the anthrax attack that did occur in September, 2001, which caused enormous economic losses, but only five deaths, making it not a WMD, but just another ACW). Others, like Smallpox, can spread after release, but are hard to disseminate initially–and devilishly hard to work with without becoming exposed oneself. In any event, in a modern society with an ample healthcare infrastructure, such bombs would again likely cause few deaths, at least compared to the genuine WMD’s filling in the Pentagon’s arsenal.

The main function of the weapons that terrorists might use (assuming they don’t get ahold of one of the Pentagon’s nastier toys) is really to sow fear and panic, and in that respect, any of the big three–dirty bombs, germ weapons or chemical weapons–could be highly effective. A dirty bomb detonated in Manhattan would probably kill far more people by trampling and car collisions than by actually exposing them to radiation. Ditto for a germ or chemical weapon.

So, with that in mind, it’s time to rename these things. Let’s save WMD for weapons that really do kill, or have the potential to kill, thousands of humans. That would mean things like nuclear bombs, cluster bombs, MOABs, propane bombs and the like. Good American weapons, that is.

As for the terrorist weapons, let’s call them WMH for Weapons of Mass Hysteria.

Once we start recognizing them for what they are, maybe people will start asking why the Bush Administration keeps harping on these things as a threat to America’s way of life. You really do have to wonder what the hell these guys are really trying to do when they keep going around trying to scare the living shit out of the American public. If the purpose of terrorist terror weapons is to sow terror, why is the Administration so busy priming the pump?

After all, remember back during the dark days of the Cold War, when U.S. and Soviet bombers and missiles stood poised and ready to initiate mutual annihilation on 15 minutes’ notice. Back then, the guys in the Pentagon and the White House didn’t tell us to panic. On the contrary, they routinely used to assure us that we didn’t have to worry. We’d survive an attack and go on to win.

It was a ridiculous lie, but the point is, they didn’t try to scare us into simpering passivity. Rather, they tried to get us to buck up and stick with the program, which was building more and more of these genuine WMDs.

These days, when America is the preeminent superpower in the globe, they seem bent on scaring us, the citizenry, out of our wits.

Why? On the evidence of the past two years, it looks like the goal is to get us to acquiesce in the evisceration of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

So maybe WMH is the wrong term. Maybe we should call these virtual terrorists’ weapons WCEs–for Weapons of Constitutional Eradication.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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