Why the Justice Department’s charge against the Boston bomber is ridiculous.

Maybe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction after all.

An 11-page federal criminal complaint charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving alleged Boston Marathon bomber, with "unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction ... against persons and property." The WMD in question was, the document explains, "an improvised explosive device."

Give me a break. Even granting that the language of the law is not the same as the language of everyday speech, it's ridiculous to call the bombs that went off in Boston "weapons of mass destruction." If any old bomb can be called a WMD, then Saddam most definitely had WMDs before the United States invaded Iraq 10 years ago. And if an IED is a WMD, then Iraq actually ended up with more WMDs after the U.S. invasion than before (and isn't entirely rid of them yet).

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm as horrified by the Boston Marathon bombings as anyone else. They were an act of senseless cruelty, killing three innocent people and injuring more than 200, many of them quite seriously. If Tsarnaev is guilty, he deserves to (and surely will) be punished to the full extent of the law. (Since this complaint was filed in federal rather than state court, the maximum penalty is death.)

But the crude Popular Mechanics-style devices used in the bombings -- pressure cookers retrofitted with explosives -- do not fit any logical definition of WMDs. To stretch the meaning of "weapon of mass destruction" this far renders entirely meaningless a phrase that was already too crudely propagandistic to warrant much respect.

The linguistic fault lies not with prosecutors but with Congress, which in the interest of expanding prosecutorial powers broadened the legal definition of "weapon of mass destruction" until, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired put it, federal statute could no longer distinguish "dangerous weapons from apocalyptic ones." Under 18 USC §2332a, a weapon of mass destruction might be what it's always been understood to be -- a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. But it can also mean any bomb, grenade, or mine, any rocket with a propellant charge exceeding four ounces, or any missile with an explosive charge exceeding one-quarter ounce. A July 4 cherry bomb, if deployed with sufficient malice, would suffice.

No one minds the hyperbole when it comes to the Boston attacks because the perpetrators of this crime committed an unusually gruesome murder. But the term "WMD" also applies to international relations. Mere possession of WMDs has, in the recent past, been used to justify invading a country and overthrowing its leader. Does the United States really want to put on notice every nation whose military arsenal includes bombs, grenades, and/or mines that they could be next? If we did, our only allies might end up being Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco, and the Vatican. (How many WMDs does the pope have?)

Obviously there's little danger of that; the diplomatic use of the term remains restricted to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. But in truth the phrase "weapon of mass destruction" has always been overly broad. It was first used in November 1945, when the United States, Britain, and Canada jointly issued a statement calling for international control of atomic weapons (which these same countries had, three months earlier, dropped on Japan). Acknowledging that new technologies might bring about even more horrible weapons, the joint statement added, "and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."

Happily, no category of weapon was ever invented during the succeeding 68 years whose destructive power could come close to matching that of nuclear weapons. Happier 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.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Monks Who Hate Muslims

Buddhist monks have been major instigators of the recent violence against Muslims in Burma.

In a small wooden office in the Mahamyaing monastery, Kyaw Linn rifles through a carrier bag of stickers emblazoned with 969, the logo that has come to represent Burma's budding anti-Muslim movement. Six months ago the head monk, Oo Wi Ma La, ordered the first batch of stickers from a nearby printing company. Now they're hard to avoid. Taxis, buses, and shop fronts across Rangoon and other major towns now display what some observers consider a symbol of Buddhist extremism -- a symbol that sees Burma's Muslim community as a threat to the country and its dominant religion.

This sentiment has unleashed waves of violence over the past several months that have left more than 40 dead, and 13,000 displaced in 2013 alone. The monastery in Moulmein, southern Burma, is credited as the birthplace of the resurgent 969 movement. Production of the 969 stickers began following rioting in western Burma last year that pitted Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims. The number signifies the attributes of Buddha and his teachings, and is sacred to Buddhists.

"We did it to protect Buddhism," Oo Wi Ma La says, adding that last year's violence in Arakan state made it clear that Buddhism in Burma is under threat. "In Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, and so on there used to be so many Buddhists, but the Muslims came and kicked them out, and now they are Muslim countries. So based on history we worry Burma could become like that. "

Around four percent of Burma's population practices Islam. It is where the two religions coexist that problems have emerged, says Oo Wi Ma La. In Moulemin's busy and cramped indoor market, however, Muslim stallholders appear calm despite the wealth of 969 stickers increasingly on display on neighboring stalls. Buddhist taxi drivers and shop owners said they have no problem with Muslims using their services.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone thinks the same way. Last month simmering animosity burst into the open once again. A brawl between Buddhists and Muslims in a gold shop in the central Burmese town of Meiktila triggered two days of violence, during which more than 800 homes in the town, mostly Muslim, were razed. Witnesses say that the Buddhist mobs who perpetrated the violence were well-organized, and that the police stood by and watched as killings were carried out in broad daylight. Such reports have led to accusations of official complicity in the violence. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is threatened by reforms. A Human Rights Watch report released today directly implicates "political and religious leaders in Arakan State" in the planning, organization, and incitement of attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims last October. (The report, which focuses on last year's bloodshed in Arakan, notes that the violence there has resulted in the forcible displacement of some 125,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes.)

Yet even if the military-led government may have helped to ignite the Arakan and Meiktila conflicts, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in Arakan state, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.

That movement has seen a resurgence since the Arakan rioting last year whipped up anti-Muslim fervor across Burma. The situation in Meiktila appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.

Most narratives of the violence have painted the 969 movement as a cohesive anti-Muslim front that seeks to purge Burma of what it considers a pernicious Islamic presence. Anti-violence protests have used 969 as a symbol to rally against (as shown above). Yet the diverging opinions of those who distribute and carry the symbol shows that this is not so clear-cut. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it more as an identifier of Buddhist solidarity, as Christians display crucifixes. Many say the adoption of 969 as the movement's symbol was done to counter 786, a numerologically important symbol to Muslims that is also seen on some shop fronts. "Now our Buddhist people are trying to give life to this 969 concept, and it saddens me," says U Gambira, a former monk who spent four years in jail for his lead role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. "They are basically copying something they hate."

Extremists are trying legitimize an objectionable philosophy by drawing on the spiritual "goodness" of what 969 represents: the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, the religious council that administers Buddhist institutions in Burma. This inevitably gives the movement an immediate appeal among Buddhists, and its leaders can then exploit underlying anti-Muslim sentiment to garner supporters, witting or unwitting.

Carrying the flag for this movement is U Wirathu, head abbot of the Masoyein monastery in Mandalay. Known in the past as a key organizing hub for anti-junta activities, the monastery has more recently developed notoriety following U Wirathu's vitriolic speeches directed at Muslims. Though he acknowledges the possibility of complicity in the recent violence with the military, whom in the past he has fiercely resisted, he considers Islam to be the greater threat. Wirathu chose to be interviewed in front of a wall decked out with self-portraits, a background that made him look more like a cult leader than a humble monk. "According to my research, 100 percent of rape cases in Burma are by Muslims. None are by Buddhists," he claims. "They forcibly take young Buddhist girls as their wives. If the wives continue to practice Buddhism then they torture them every day."

Wirathu is a man of contradictions. His recipe for ending violence and religious tension in Burma is to rid the country of "bad Muslims," but fails to acknowledge that such messages have been a key source of the violence. "If everyone in Burma was like me then there would be peace," he continues, before later handing over a booklet on whose front cover is drawn a lion baring its teeth at a child. The child is a Buddhist and the lion a Muslim, he explains.

U Wirathu was jailed in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim unrest (though he denies any responsibility for the recent violence). But the government's unwillingness to take action this time round has added to the feeling that elements within the government or military could benefit from the spoils that may result from a fractured Burma.

The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham last month, anti-Muslim posters began appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.

This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.