Heaven forfend we should actually listen to the experts

Last week, word came out of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial that the jury deliberating his sentence had asked the judge a question — could hijacked airplanes be considered Weapons of Mass Destruction? The judge answered them that for the purposes of this trial, the answer was yes.

Now I want that SOB dead as much as the next person (and more than a great many), but the judge was flat-out wrong here. An airliner is NOT a weapon of mass destruction.

I’ve always deferred to experts when it comes to terminology, and when it comes to weapons, I usually let the military have the final word. Their business is killing people and breaking things, and they more than anyone ought to know their own lingo.

According to the military, a Weapon of Mass Destruction is simple: it is a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. Period. And as far as WMD doctrine goes, they are interchangeable: a nuke is a bug is a gas. And an airliner is not a nuke, a bug, or a gas. Thanks to its fuel, it’s essentially one humongous, self-propelled Improvised Explosive Device (IED), with an element of suicide bomber tossed in. It’s an unconventional application of an essentially conventional weapon.

A similar argument was held when the recently-expired assault weapons ban was being deliberated. Both sides looked at Congress’ definition of “assault weapon.” Congress said the distinguishing characteristics of an assault rifle were:

  • A pistol grip
  • A lgrenade launcher
  • A folding, collapsing, or telescoping stock
  • A flash suppressor
  • A bayonet mount

(Other, similar rules applied to pistols and shotguns)

Now, I went to the military’s definition of an “assault rifle.” According to the folks who actually use them on a daily basis, an “assault rifle” is a small-caliber rifle that is capable of firing in either full automatic or burst mode — which means that more than one round is fired when the trigger is held down. This is how the military distinguishes an assault rifle from an ordinary rifle, a submachine gun (a fully automatic weapon that fires pistol ammunition) and a machine gun (which fires larger ammunition).

I found I had to agree with the critics. The criteria Congress outlined were all about how the gun LOOKS, and did not affect in the least how the gun FUNCTIONS. It was, indeed, a “scary-looking gun” ban, and good riddance with its expiration.

And likewise with the Moussaoui case. I have no doubt in my mind that he and the rest of the 9/11 hijackers would have used WMDs on that day if they had access to them, but the simple fact is they did not. The government side that argued that line were wrong, and the judge was wrong to buy into it. There are plenty of other reasons why he ought to be put down like the mad dog he is — there’s no reason to toss in the whole WMD silliness.

Russ Feingold's Censure Hearing Folly
Censure? Impeachment?


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