Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Trial: WMD Charges Do More Harm Than Good


According to a federal criminal complaint outlining the charges against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber has joined the ranks of President Truman in World War II, Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and Russian special forces in in the Moscow theater hostage crisis in having used WMDs. Tsarnaev is charged with "unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction … against persons and property." This charge is a symptom of the ridiculous misnomer of WMDs in the DOJ, which may do more harm than good.

In what seems like an obvious semantic exaggeration, and as Timothy Noah argues in a Foreign Policy op-ed, the fault lies not with prosecutors but with Congress. Under 18 USC §2332, the use of pressure cookers retrofitted with explosives in Boston is the legal equivalence of a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon. Congress seems to have deviated almost entirely from the obvious original meaning of WMD, outlined in a November 1945 jointly issued statement by the Western allies victors: "major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

The inclusion of any bomb, grenade, mine, or any rocket with a propellant charge greater than four ounces in the federal definition of a WMDs mean that even most Americans have access to WMDs. outlined how under the National Firearms Act of 1934, most Americans could buy their own M203 grenade launcher, 40mm buckshot round grenades, etc.

Although it is important to note that the language of the law is not the same as the language of everyday speech, we should still hold legal statutes to a common-sense standard. Consider the following case of the term WMD being correctly used under legal statutes, but which fail the "common sense" test.

You may have heard the story of Eric Harroun, a U.S. Army veteran who joined up with a rebel group fighting in Syria. Although eventually charged with using a "destructive device," FBI agent Paul Higginbotham made it clear that Harroun's use of an RPG qualified as "probable cause to believe that … Eric Harroun conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction, i.e. a rocket-propelled grenade, outside of the United States."

I of course do not mean to downplay the tragedy in Boston, but rather to put the DOJ’s charges, and the definition of WMD they rely on, in perspective. In the same week that 14 died in West, Texas, a community now riddled with damage after the explosion of a fertilizer plant, the Boston bombing has received the lion's share of news coverage and caused the U.S. to declare a global security alert. The federal charge against Tsarnaev of using WMDs is a continuation of what some experts have called an outsized reaction, which will only further fuel terrorists. The main goal of terrorism, as Fareed Zakaria explains, is to frighten, and its success depends on how we react. The DOJ's pursuit of charges beyond murder and terrorism is undermining the measured reaction ofD the resilient people of Boston.