Some problems with the charges filed against Boston Marathon bombing suspect

Well, it seems that Tsarnaev has now been read his rights.

The FBI filed charges against the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, alleging “using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction.” But Tim Noah has pointed out an interesting conundrum in his article on FP.com: How do relatively small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) amount to weapons of mass destruction?

18 USC § 2332a defines “weapon of mass destruction” as:

“(A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;

(B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;

(C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or

(D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.”

Since the pressure-cooker bombs made by the brothers did not (so far as we know) use  any toxins, poisons, biological agents, or radioactive elements, then the definition of WMD in operation in this case must be that of a “destructive device” which then allows in “any explosive bomb.” Firecrackers, too, apparently (Section 921 defines “Attorney General,” but not “bomb”).

But even setting aside the idiocy of language of the statute, it’s ridiculous to call the low-powered bombs  in Boston “weapons of mass destruction,” even if they did wound scores of innocent civilians. After all, as Tim Noah points out,

“If any old bomb can be called a WMD, then Saddam most definitely had WMDs before the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago. And if an IED is a WMD, then Iraq actually ended up with more WMDs after the U.S. invasion than before (and isn’t entirely rid of them yet).”

For the sake of clarity, I do not advocate “going easy” on Tsarnaev. He should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, which is what the federal government appears to be doing. But neither do I support equating the employment of ordinary bombs and IEDs with true weapons of mass destruction.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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About paulwtaylor

Paul is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy & Research and an alumnus of Seton Hall Law School and the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Having obtained a joint-degree in law and international relations, he has studied international security, causes of war, national security law, and international law. Additionally, Paul is a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, with deployments to both Afghanistan and to Iraq, and has worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Global Action to Prevent War. He has also participated in habeas litigation for Guantanamo Bay detainees and investigated various government policies and practices. In addition to his duties as a member of the editorial staff of TransparentPolicy.org, Paul now works at Cydecor, Inc., a defense contractor focused on naval irregular and expeditionary warfare. Paul's research and writing focuses on targeted killing, direct action, drones, and the automation of warfare.

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  1. Pingback: Speedy trial chickens may be coming home to roost | Center for Policy & Research

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