Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

The Definition of WMD

The cost of our current war on terrorism is approaching $350 billion. By comparison, the Korean War cost about $430 billion and the Vietnam War, about $600 billion in current dollars. An interesting difference is that we are financing this war with debt, much of which comes from Communist China, our enemy in the Korean War.

The motivation for this investment is the War on Terrorism with a particular focus on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This was brought to my rambling mind by the slaying of 5 innocent little girls yesterday just down the road from me just outside Quarryville, PA.

More perspective: over the past 10 years 72 children and adults, mostly children, have been shot to death in US schools and 101 injured. Overall, the number of people killed with handguns in 2003, the last date for which complete records are avaiilable, approached 30,000, including:

  • 16,907 suicides (56% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 11,920 homicides (40% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 730 unintentional shootings (3% of all U.S gun deaths),
  • 347 from legal intervention and 232 from undetermined intent (1% of all U.S gun deaths combined).

—CDC National Center for Health Statistics mortality report online, 2006.

The homicide rate alone exceeds the number of people who perished in the disasters of 9/11. Shouldn’t this count as terrorism? That would make the handgun a WMD and, considering the fact that the figures above are annual figures, should “handguns” not be included in any definition of WMD?

Couldn’t we find a billion or two somewhere—here or in China—to reduce the number of handguns floating around the US?

Of course, I am not just musing about semantic consistency. I have lived the majority of my life among the Amish and Mennonites. They have helped me build my house—in fact, they built the original structure 160 years ago. Every Satuday morning I hear the horse of one family clopping by the front of my house. They helped us raise our children, feed them, clothe them and in the history of this county (Union), none have ever spent a night in the local jail.

The Amish and Mennonites are the gentlest of creatures who take the incredibly difficult task Jesus Christ set before us, “turn the other cheek”, literally. And they have survived. Terrorism against them, I find especially heinous, and I don’t know why. My heart goes out to them and their families. It is the worst situation for a linguist: when words are useless, no matter how carefully chosen and shaped.


2 Responses to “The Definition of WMD”

  1. Larry Says:

    No, I wouldn’t call it terrorism, and handguns should not be included in in the definition of WMDs. People have been killing each other since Cain slew Abel, to use a Biblical reference, if not before then. Laws against murder have been around long before the development of firearms. The Bible contains them, as does the Code of Hammurabi.

    Terrorism usually has political overtones that ordinary violence doesn’t have. The closest thing to terrorism would be serial killers such as the one in Arizona, the “Son of Sam,” or the DC or Ohio snipers. They strike terror into a population because their victims seem to be random.

    Several years ago near where I live, one roommate killed another with a steak knife over a drug deal as I recall. Another man bludgeoned his mother to death with a staute of the Blessed Virgin Mary because the mother would not give him any money for drugs. Shall we outlaw kitchen cutlery and religious icons?

    A WMD is a weapon of _mass_ destruction: one weapon causes mass casualties, such as a gas attack, a biological attack, or a nuclear attack. While many may be killed by people wielding guns, it is done many people with many guns, not a single gun. A single WMD could kill much more than 12,000 people.

    From what I’ve heard on the news, these murders at the Amish school were not an act of terrorism but a simple multiple murder perpetrated by some tortured soul who snapped from some as yet unknown psychological problem. It was obviously well-planned, but it looks like the school was just a target of opportunity because it was so vulnerable rather than being a target because it was Amish. “Who needs security at an Amish school? That’s for big cities that are rife with violence!”

    You don’t know why you find crimes (“terrorism”) against the Amish and Mennonites especially heinous? I do–it’s because they’re committed against a group that cannot, or will not, defend itself, all because of their pacifist beliefs, and in this particular case, against the most vulnerable part of all groups: children. It breaks one’s heart.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Words and phrases serve a couple of functions. The two most prominent are description and designation (though that is not the linguistic term, which refuses to surface in my mind right now). That is, they can describe a situation or just indicate or name it. “John” doesn’t describe anything, just designates a particular individual. “Baker” is descriptive in that it tells us its reference is someone who bakes. As usual, distinctions get fuzzy.

    Descriptively, a weapon of mass destruction is precisely that: any weapon that is used for the mass destruction (of people implied). However, designatively, this phrase can be used much more narrowly and, as you rightly point out, usually is. I guess what I did in this blog is jump from one function to another without warning anyone. But then it was just the linguistic excuse for an attempt to express futile frustration.

    Still and all, I don’t recall a situation in which 6-11 year-old girls were lined up against a blackboard and stabbed to death. (Aah, yes; there was Richard Speck but he was a rarity.) Anyway, I’ve never liked the parallel. Cars kill but that is not their designated function; knives have a useful function for which they are mostly used. A handgun is designed and manufactured for the sole purpose of killing human beings who tend to run and hide when they see a gun that cannot be concealed.

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