GWYNNE DYER > A rather small weapon of mass destruction

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George W. Bush wasn’t lying about Iraq after all, and those of us who said he was owe him an apology. Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. We just didn’t read the small print.

When President Bush said in a speech: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” we thought he was talking about nuclear weapons. And many of us didn’t believe him.

When Vice-President Dick Cheney assured us: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends … and against us,” we just assumed he was lying as usual.

And when Colin Powell, the secretary of state, told the U.N. Security Council that “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction ... We know that Iraqi government officials ... have hidden prohibited items in their homes,” we thought he meant nukes and poison gas and nasty biological agents. Poor old Colin, we thought. An innocent soldier, too gullible for his own good.
But we were all wrong. The real threat was pressure cookers, and there were thousands of them in the homes of Iraqi officials.

We shouldn’t be too hard on the Bush gang for not making a full disclosure of what they actually meant by “weapons of mass destruction” at the time. Imagine how silly Colin Powell would have looked at the United Nations if he had shown the disbelieving audience not a vial of suspicious-looking liquid (nerve gas? bubonic plague?), but merely a pressure cooker. But there can be no doubt now: there WERE “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

These penitential thoughts are inspired by the charge brought against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the two young Chechen-Americans who detonated two pressure cookers stuffed with explosives and ball-bearings at the Boston Marathon last week, killing three and wounding several hundred. It was a wicked deed that brought great sorrow to many families – but are pressure cookers really “weapons of mass destruction”?

The U.S. Department of Justice certainly thinks so. On April 22 it charged the 19-year-old Tsarnaev with “using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against persons and property.” Not a nuclear weapon, or poison gas, or some filthy plague, but a home-made bomb that killed three people.

The U.S. federal government’s definition of a “weapon of mass destruction,” it turns out, is quite different from the one we ordinary mortals use. It covers almost any explosive device, specifically including bombs, grenades, mines, and small rockets and missiles.

The requirement seems to be that the weapon in question has to explode, so assault rifles with large magazines, for example, are exempt, even though they have been used to kill much larger numbers of innocent American civilians on several occasions. (Mustn’t upset the National Rifle Association.)

Of course, AMERICAN bombs, grenades, mines and small rockets and missiles are not “weapons of mass destruction.” That would be unthinkable. Otherwise we would have to accept that President Barack Obama signs off on the use of drone-delivered weapons of mass destruction on the guilty and the innocent alike in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen almost every morning.

What’s really going on here is just another manifestation of what Americans themselves call “American exceptionalism.” In this context, it means that killing Americans, especially for political reasons, is a special crime that calls for special terms and special punishment. It’s the same logic that has been used to justify imprisoning people indefinitely without trial and even torturing them in the endless “war on terror.”

Don’t get too excited about it. One of the things that makes Americans completely unexceptional is that they are playing the same games with words and meanings that every great power has used to justify its actions since the dawn of time. Lewis Carroll nailed it a century and a half ago in “Through the Looking-Glass,” the sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”


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Notice on comments

mara mcglothin

4/29/2013 10:56:18 PM

MR DYER If you were an enemy combatant in a war zone, would you keep your children and wife with you??? I wouldn't.

mara mcglothin

4/29/2013 5:27:15 PM

DANIEL Random crimes in the name of religious fanaticism is not common place in the USA like it is in other parts of the World, so we are bound to be alarmed. So I have no problem with the "news media" overblowing the event. Better safe than sorry, and now we have reason to believe that these kids were planning other attacks, so Boston was correct in closing down the city.l

Tayyar Abi

4/29/2013 3:42:58 PM

Good article. I'm sick to death of all the overblown rhetoric of American news media. Judging by their paranoia and non-stop blabbering about a minor terror event, you would think the whole city of Boston exploded. Don't get me wrong, I'm blaming todays totally deteriorated news media, not the American people.

Chris Green

4/29/2013 2:40:18 PM

Further to my earlier response, it would perhaps be useful if Mr Dyer commented here too given Mr Steven's remarks.

Chris Green

4/29/2013 2:22:58 PM

Mr Stevens: I object to your interpretation to both the article and also my comments in support of it. I do not remotely applaud the events that took place and I shed no tears for the fate of the perpetrators. I do believe that the ultimate sanction is appropriate in such matters and it would have been better had both perished in the actions. What I believe the author is looking at is the double-standards being applied by the USA in respect of defining WMD & no mal-intent towards victims

sam stevens

4/29/2013 12:18:41 PM

Tasteless article lacking totally in empathy & far too soon for humour. There are people in hospital minus their limbs which in my view is worse than dying because they have to rebuild their lives. Mocking anything to do with the murderous Islamists action at this stage & taking a salacious delight in this is simply sickening ! Shame on you for your sneering. NO & I am not an American.

Chris Green

4/29/2013 11:22:31 AM

This is an excellent article, utilizing as it does a clearly innate sense of humour to convey a serious message and this is most clearly passed for if one can harness the passive nature of humour it is likely that the point you wish to convey is received by a passive audience. The selective use of the WMD catch-all in this instance enables the USA to mete out (eventually) the death penalty as its wholly vengeful justice process demands. Why let him die in hospital when we can kill him ourselves?
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