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The concept of WMD is dishonest. When they are in friendly hands we call them defence forces 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Friday May 2, 2003
The Guardian 

If the first casualty of war is truth, then language itself sustains  the heaviest collateral damage, as Orwell used to point out  (before "collateral damage" proved his point by entering the  vocabulary of poisonous euphemism). The Iraq war has produced its own  rich crop of Newspeak, but the choicest of all is the phrase "weapons  of mass destruction". 

Even the most credulous supporters of Tony Blair's war are beginning  to see they were sold a pup. MPs angrily demand evidence of the WMDs,  which they, in their innocence, believed were the reason for the war,  rather than its flimsy pretext, while the prime minister insists that  WMDs will be found. 

But what are they anyway? The very phrase "weapons of mass  destruction" is of recent coinage, and a specious one. It  replaced "ABC weapons", for atomic, biological and chemical, which  was neater, although already misleading as it conflated types of  weaponry quite different in kind and in destructive capacity. WMD is  even more empty and dishonest as a concept. 

By definition atomic and hydrogen bombs cause mass destruction. Ever  since they were first built and used in war (by the US, in case  anyone has forgotten), they have cast a peculiar thrall of horror,  although this is not entirely logical. The quarter-million dead of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been preceded by nearly a million German  and Japanese civilians killed by "conventional" bombing, whose  conventionality was small consolation for the victims. 

Even supposing that nuclear weapons are uniquely horrible, the Iraq war and its aftermath have only served to confirm what Hans Blix  learned, and what the International Institute for Strategic Studies  said last summer: that Saddam had no fissile material to build atomic  warheads. Nor did he have (for all the shockingly mendacious  propaganda) the wherewithal for acquiring such material. Had he  possessed warheads, he never had the means of striking London, let  alone New York. And if he had ever been tempted to lob one at Israel,  he would have been constrained by the certain knowledge that Baghdad  would have been nuked minutes later. 

Certainly he possessed the biological and chemical material in ABC,  although here again the "W" in WMD is notably  misleading: "weaponised" was just what this material was not, a fact  which makes the pretext for war even more phoney. And certainly  Saddam had used biological and chemical weapons against Iran as well  as the Kurds. Very nasty they are, but that does not make them mass- destructive in the same sense as nuclear warheads. 

A height of absurdity was reached with the claim that one of Saddam's  WMDs was mustard gas - a weapon we were using in 1917, and which  British politicians at the time defended as comparatively humane  beside high-explosive artillery and machine-gun fire. 

Even terrorism isn't always more dangerous because of access to toxic  substances, and doesn't need a dictator like Saddam to provide them  anyway. Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman have written about biological  and chemical weapons in their book, A Higher Form of Killing. Harris  has pointed out that "a reasonably competent chemist could produce  nerve agent on a kitchen table". 

In 1995, a terrorist religious cult in Japan did just that, thereby  providing an illuminating comparison. Those cultists released sarin  nerve gas - another of Saddam's alleged WMDs - into the Tokyo metro  during rush hour. Last February in the South Korean city of Daegu, an  underground train was attacked, with a milk carton containing  inflammable liquid. Twelve people died in the "WMD" attack; old- fashioned arson killed 120. 

Soon after September 11, a number of letters containing anthrax  spores were posted in America. In the overwrought climate of the  moment, it was claimed that this batch of "WMD" could kill the  American population many times over, and that may have been true  according to some abstract calculation. In the event, five people died. 

While terrorism is murderous, it mostly remains technologically  primitive. Three people were killed in Tel Aviv on Tuesday by a  suicide bomber's belt of explosive and metal scraps, and the IRA have  shown how bloodthirsty "spectaculars" can be mounted with nothing  more than fertiliser, sugar, and condoms for the timers. 

As for the greatest spectacular of all, Blair has repeatedly linked  September 11 with the threat of WMDs. But the 3,000 victims in New  York weren't killed by WMDs of any kind, they were murdered by a  dozen fanatics armed with box cutters. Although it has been  irritating subsequently to have the contents of one's sponge bag  confiscated at the airport in the name of security, that scarcely  makes a pair of nail scissors a WMD. 

The truth is that "weapons of mass destruction" is a concept defined  by the person using it. "I like a drink, you are a drunk, he is an  alcoholic," runs the old conjugation. Now there's another: "We have  defence forces, you have dangerous arms, he has weapons of mass  destruction." As usual, it depends who you are. 

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