Fortunately, no category of weapon was ever invented during the succeeding 68 years whose destructive power could come close to matching that of nuclear weapons. More fortunate still, after 1945 no nation again resorted to nuclear warfare, which might have extinguished human civilization.
But in 1947 the United Nations adopted the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” to describe not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons. And although the latter two categories of weapon are indeed terrifying and ought never to be used by any nation or terror group, they never, as a matter of simple fact, became as destructive as nuclear weapons, and should not be thought of in the same category. Chemical and biological weapons are not, at least as of today, capable of extinguishing human civilization.
This may seem a pedantic point, but the Bush administration used the WMD label to muddy the question of whether Saddam Hussein merely had chemical and biological weapons (a proposition for which it was thought there was much evidence, though it turned out he didn’t), or whether he also had nuclear weapons (a proposition for which there was no plausible-seeming evidence even at the time). The confusion level got so high that the New Republic, in an editorial, demonstrated that it had come to think of chemical and biological weapons as the only weapons of mass destruction. The magazine justified invading Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was “the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them.” In fact, as I noted at the time, U.S. President Harry Truman had possessed a much more fearsome category of weapon in 1945 and had, ahem, used it. Twice.
In characterizing the Boston Marathon bombers as wielding “weapons of mass destruction,” we miss what was truly frightening about that event. It isn’t only terrorist masterminds who can harm us with weapons of unimaginable power. It’s also ordinary people moved by inexplicable hatreds using the simplest of tools. Weapons of minor destruction, in the wrong hands, are perhaps even more terrifying, because they’re so much easier to acquire, and so much easier to set off.
Timothy Noah is author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.”