Dzhokhar TsarnaevBoston Police DepartmentEven for those of us who think there's no hole too deep into which to drop somebody who bombs innocent people, the "weapon of mass destruction" charge brought against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seems a bit of a stretch. Isn't "weapons of mass destruction" an awkward term meant to encompass killing devices designed to take out cities and armies? As it turns out, though, the term is a bit loose. It's not so loose as to apply to anything, but it comes pretty damned close.

According to U.S. law (18 USC § 2332):

the term “weapon of mass destruction” means—

(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;

Chemical and biologial agents clearly aren't at issue here, but "destructive devices" are. So a peek at 18 USC § 921 reveals:

The term “destructive device” means—

(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—

(i) bomb,

(ii) grenade,

(iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,

(iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,

(v) mine, or

(vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;

(B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter; and

(C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.

The term “destructive device” shall not include any device which is neither designed nor redesigned for use as a weapon; any device, although originally designed for use as a weapon, which is redesigned for use as a signaling, pyrotechnic, line throwing, safety, or similar device; surplus ordnance sold, loaned, or given by the Secretary of the Army pursuant to the provisions of section 4684 (2), 4685, or 4686 of title 10; or any other device which the Attorney General finds is not likely to be used as a weapon, is an antique, or is a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.

Yup. That really is a definition big enough to encompass both nuclear weapons and horrible but small explosive devices of the sort that caused such havoc in Boston. It'd probably cover you after an ill-considered lunch of chili, for that matter.

I don't think I'm expressing excessive sympathy — or any sympathy — for the (accused) Boston bombers when I suggest that laws with a touch of specificity seem more appropriate than statutes that paint with such a broad brush. In this case, something like "murder" should do just fine.