mass destruction

A weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is a weapon which can kill large numbers of humans and/or cause great damage to man-made structures (e.g. buildings), natural structures (e.g. mountains), or the biosphere in general. The term covers several weapon types, including nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC), and radiological weapons. Additional terms used in a military context include atomic, biological, and chemical warfare (ABC warfare) and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear warfare (CBRN).

The phrase was predominantly used in reference to nuclear weapons during the Cold War; following the collapse of the Soviet Union and increasing tensions between the Middle East and the Western powers, the term broadened to its modern, more inclusive definition. It entered widespread usage in relation to the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Early uses of the term

The first use of the term "weapons of mass destruction" on record is from The Times (London) in 1937 in reference to the aerial bombardment of Guernica, Spain:

Who can think at this present time without a sickening of the heart of the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery brought by war to Spain and to China? Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?

At that time, there were no nuclear weapons; biological weapons were already being researched by Japan (see Unit 731), and chemical weapons had seen wide use, most notably in World War I.

Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and progressing through the Cold War, the term came to refer more to non-conventional weapons. The application of the term to specifically nuclear and radiological weapons is traced by William Safire to the Russian phrase oruziye massovovo porazheniya. He credits James Goodby (of the Brookings Institution) with tracing what he considers the earliest known English-language use soon after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (although it is not quite verbatim): a communique from a November 15, 1945 meeting of Harry Truman, Clement Attlee and Mackenzie King (probably drafted by Vannevar Bush — or so Bush claimed in 1970) referred to "weapons adaptable to mass destruction". That exact phrase, says Safire, was also used by Bernard Baruch in 1946 (in a speech at the United Nations probably written by Herbert Bayard Swope). The same phrase found its way into the UN resolution to create the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)), which used the wording "…atomic weapons and of all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction".

An exact use of this term was given in a lecture "Atomic Energy as an Atomic Problem" by J. Robert Oppenheimer. The lecture was delivered to the Foreign Service and the State Department, on September 17th, 1947. The lecture is reprinted in The Open Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955). "It is a very far reaching control which would eliminate the rivalry between nations in this field, which would prevent the surreptitious arming of one nation against another, which would provide some cushion of time before atomic attack, and presumably therefore before any attack with weapons of mass destruction, and which would go a long way toward removing atomic energy at least as a source of conflict between the powers."

An early use of the exact phrase in an international treaty was in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, however no definition was provided.

Evolution of its use

During the Cold War, the term "weapons of mass destruction" was primarily a reference to nuclear weapons. At the time, the US arsenal of thermonuclear weapons were regarded as a necessary deterrent against an all-out strike from the Soviet Union (see Mutual Assured Destruction), and the euphemism "strategic weapons" was used to refer to the American nuclear arsenal.

The term "weapons of mass destruction" continued to see periodic use throughout this time, usually in the context of nuclear arms control; Ronald Reagan used it during the 1986 Reykjavík Summit, when referring to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, used the term in an 1989 speech to the United Nations, using it primarily in reference to chemical arms.

The end of the Cold War reduced U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, causing it to shift its focus to disarmament. This period coincided with an increasing threat to U.S. interests from Islamic nations and independent Islamic groups. With the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs became a particular concern of the first Bush Administration. Following the war, the Clinton Administration and other western politicians and media continued to use the term, usually in reference to ongoing attempts to dismantle Iraq's weapons programs.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, an increased fear of non-conventional weapons and asymmetrical warfare took hold of the United States and other Western powers. This fear reached a crescendo with the 2002 Iraq disarmament crisis and the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that became the primary justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Because of its prolific use during this period, the American Dialect Society voted "weapons of mass destruction" (and its abbreviation, "WMD") the word of the year in 2002, and in 2003 Lake Superior State University added WMD to its list of terms banished for "Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness".

Definitions of the term

The most widely used definition of "weapons of mass destruction" is that of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons (NBC), although there is no treaty or customary international law that contains an authoritative definition. Instead, international law has been used with respect to the specific categories of weapons within WMD, and not to WMD as a whole.

The acronym NBC (for nuclear, biological and chemical) is used with regards to battlefield protection systems for armored vehicles, because all three involve insidious toxins that can be carried through the air and can be protected against with vehicle air filtration systems. However, there is an argument that nuclear weapons do not belong in the same category as chemical, biological, or "dirty bomb" radiological weapons, which have limited destructive potential (and close to none, as far as property is concerned), whereas nuclear weapons are immensely destructive and could be said to belong in a class by themselves.

The NBC definition has also been used in official U.S. documents, by the U.S. President, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Other documents expand the definition of WMD to also include radiological or conventional weapons. The U.S. military refers to WMD as:

Weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people. Weapons of mass destruction can be high explosives or nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, but exclude the means of transporting or propelling the weapon where such means is a separable and divisible part of the weapon.

The significance of the words separable and divisible part of the weapon is that missiles such as the Pershing II and the SCUD are considered weapons of mass destruction, while aircraft capable of carrying bombloads are not.

Within U.S. civil defense organizations, the category is now Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE), which defines WMD as:

(1) Any explosive, incendiary, poison gas, bomb, grenade, or rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces [113 g], missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce [7 g], or mine or device similar to the above. (2) Poison gas. (3) Any weapon involving a disease organism. (4) Any weapon that is designed to release radiation at a level dangerous to human life. This definition derives from US law, 18 U.S.C. Section 2332a and the referenced 18 USC 921. Indictments and convictions for possession and use of WMD such as truck bombs, pipe bombs, shoe bombs, cactus needles coated with botulin toxin, etc. have been obtained under 18 USC 2332a.

The U.S. FBI also considers conventional weapons (i.e. bombs) as WMD: "A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of its release overwhelm local responders". Gustavo Bell Lemus, the Vice President of Colombia, at the 2001 United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, quoted the Millennium Report of the UN Secretary-General to the General Assembly, in which Kofi Annan said that small arms could be described as WMD because the fatalities they cause "dwarf that of all other weapons systems - and in most years greatly exceed the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki".

Chemical weapons expert Gert G. Harigel considers only nuclear weapons true weapons of mass destruction, because "only nuclear weapons are completely indiscriminate by their explosive power, heat radiation and radioactivity, and only they should therefore be called a weapon of mass destruction". He prefers to call chemical and biological weapons "weapons of terror" when aimed against civilians and "weapons of intimidation" for soldiers. Testimony of one such soldier expresses the same viewpoint. For a period of several months in the winter of 2002-2003, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz frequently used the term "weapons of mass terror," apparently also recognizing the distinction between the psychological and the physical effects of many things currently falling into the WMD category.

An additional condition often implicitly applied to WMD is that the use of the weapons must be strategic. In other words, they would be designed to "have consequences far outweighing the size and effectiveness of the weapons themselves". The strategic nature of WMD also defines their function in the military doctrine of total war as targeting the means a country would use to support and supply its war effort, specifically its population, industry, and natural resources.

The Washington Post reported on 3/30/2006: "Jurors asked the judge in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui today to define the term "weapons of mass destruction" and were told it includes airplanes used as missiles". Moussaoui was indicted and tried for the use of airplanes as WMD.(see above).

WMD use and control

The development and use of WMD is governed by international conventions and treaties, although not all countries have signed and ratified them:

In 1996 the International Court of Justice provided an advisory opinion regarding the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The statement is an authoritative legal pronouncement but not legally binding. It stated that any threat of the use of force, or the use of force, by means of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter or that fails to meet all the requirements of Article 51 would be unlawful.

Adopted by the UN Security Council on April 28, 2004, UN Resolution 1540 recognizes the threat posed to international peace and security by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery. It calls upon greater effort by nations to limit proliferation of such weapons.

Weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, are rarely used because their use is essentially an "invitation" for a WMD retaliation, which in turn could escalate into a war so destructive it could easily destroy huge segments of the world's population. During the Cold War, this understanding became known as mutually assured destruction and was largely the reason war never broke out between the WMD-armed United States and Soviet Union.

WMD use, possession and access

Nuclear weapons

The only country to have used a nuclear weapon in war is the United States. There are eight countries that have declared they possess nuclear weapons and are known to have tested a nuclear weapon, only five of which are members of the NPT. The eight include: People's Republic of China; France; India; Pakistan; Russia; The United Kingdom; the United States of America; and North Korea. Israel is considered by most analysts to have nuclear weapons numbering in the low hundreds as well, but maintains an official policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither denying nor confirming its nuclear status. Iran is suspected by western countries of seeking nuclear weapons, a claim that it denies. South Africa developed a small nuclear arsenal in the 1980s but disassembled them in the early 1990s, making it the only country to have fully given up an independently developed nuclear weapons arsenal. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited stockpiles of nuclear arms following the break-up of the Soviet Union, but relinquished them to the Russian Federation. Countries with access to nuclear weapons through nuclear sharing agreements include: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. North Korea has claimed to have developed and tested nuclear devices; although outside sources have been unable to unequivocally support the state's claims, North Korea has officially been identified to have nuclear weapons.

United States politics

Due to the indiscriminate impact of WMDs, the fear of a WMD attack has shaped political policies and campaigns, fostered social movements, and has been the central theme of many films. Support for different levels of WMD development and control varies nationally and internationally. Yet understanding of the nature of the threats is not high, in part because of imprecise usage of the term by politicians and the media.

Fear of WMD, or of threats diminished by the possession of WMD, has long been used to catalyze public support for various WMD policies. They include mobilization of pro- and anti-WMD campaigners alike, and generation of popular political support. The term WMD may be used as a powerful buzzword, or to generate a culture of fear.. It is also used ambiguously, particularly by not distinguishing among the different types of WMD.

A television commercial called Daisy, promoting Democrat Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential candidacy, invoked the fear of a nuclear war and was an element in Johnson's subsequent election.

More recently, the threat of potential WMD in Iraq was used by President George W. Bush to generate public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Broad reference to Iraqi WMD in general was seen as an element of President Bush's arguments. As Paul Wolfowitz explained: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." To date, however, Coalition forces have found mainly degraded artillery shells. On June 21, 2006, United States Senator Rick Santorum claimed that "We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons." According to the Washington Post, he was referring to 500 such shells "that had been buried near the Iranian border, and then long forgotten, by Iraqi troops during their eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988." That night, "intelligence officials reaffirmed that the shells were old and were not the suspected weapons of mass destruction sought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion." The shells had been uncovered and reported on in 2004. In 2004 Polish troops found 17 1980s-era rocket warheads, thwarting an attempt by militants to buy them at $5000 each. Some of the rockets contained extremely deteriorated nerve agent.

Media coverage of WMD

In 2004 the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) released a report examining the media’s coverage of WMD issues during three separate periods: India’s nuclear weapons tests in May 1998; the US announcement of evidence of a North Korean nuclear weapons program in October 2002; and revelations about Iran's nuclear program in May 2003. The CISSM report notes that poor coverage resulted less from political bias among the media than from tired journalistic conventions. The report’s major findings were that:

  1. Most media outlets represented WMD as a monolithic menace, failing to adequately distinguish between weapons programs and actual weapons or to address the real differences among chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons.
  2. Most journalists accepted the Bush administration’s formulation of the “War on Terror” as a campaign against WMD, in contrast to coverage during the Clinton era, when many journalists made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition and use of WMD.
  3. Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s perspective on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options.
  4. Too few stories proffered alternative perspectives to official line, a problem exacerbated by the journalistic prioritizing of breaking-news stories and the “inverted pyramid” style of storytelling.

In a separate study published in 2005, a group of researchers assessed the effects reports and retractions in the media had on people’s memory regarding the search for WMD in Iraq during the 2003 Iraq War. The study focused on populations in two coalition countries (Australia and USA) and one opposed to the war (Germany). Results showed that US citizens generally did not correct initial misconceptions regarding WMD, even following disconfirmation; Australian and German citizens were more responsive to retractions. Dependence on the initial source of information led to a substantial minority of Americans exhibiting false memory that WMD were indeed discovered, while they were not. This led to three conclusions:

  1. The repetition of tentative news stories, even if they are subsequently disconfirmed, can assist in the creation of false memories in a substantial proportion of people.
  2. Once information is published, its subsequent correction does not alter people's beliefs unless they are suspicious about the motives underlying the events the news stories are about.
  3. ''When people ignore corrections, they do so irrespective of how certain they are that the corrections occurred.

A poll conducted between June and September 2003 asked people whether they thought WMD had been discovered in Iraq since the war ended. They were also asked which media sources they relied upon. Those who obtained their news primarily from Fox News were three times as likely to believe that evidence confirming WMD had been discovered in Iraq than those who relied on PBS and NPR for their news, and one third more likely than those who primarily watched CBS.

Media source Respondents believing evidence of WMD had been found in Iraq since the war ended
Fox 33%
CBS 23%
NBC 20%
CNN 20%
ABC 19%
Print media 17%
Based on a series of polls taken from June-September 2003.

In 2006 Fox News reported the claims of two Republican lawmakers that WMDs had been found in Iraq, based upon unclassified portions of a report by the National Ground Intelligence Center. Quoting from the report Senator Rick Santorum said "Since 2003, coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent". According to David Kay, who appeared before the US House Armed Services Committee to discuss these badly corroded munitions, they were leftovers, many years old, improperly stored or destroyed by the Iraqis. Charles Duelfer agreed, stating on NPR's Talk of the Nation: "When I was running the ISG – the Iraq Survey Group – we had a couple of them that had been turned in to these IEDs, the improvised explosive devices. But they are local hazards. They are not a major, you know, weapon of mass destruction.

Many news agencies, including Fox News, reported the conclusions of the CIA that, based upon the investigation of the Iraq Survey Group, WMDs have yet to be found in Iraq.


From US Code Title 18.2332a

(2) the term “weapon of mass destruction” means—
   (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;
   (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or
       impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
   (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or
   (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life;

From Title 18.921

(4) The term “destructive device” means—
   (A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—
      (i) bomb,
      (ii) grenade,
      (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,
      (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,
      (v) mine, or
      (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;
   (B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Attorney General finds is generally recognized as
       particularly suitable for sporting purposes) by whatever name known which will, or which may be readily converted to, expel
       a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half
       inch in diameter; and
   (C) any combination of parts either designed or intended for use in converting any device into any destructive device described
       in subparagraph (A) or (B) and from which a destructive device may be readily assembled.
 The term “destructive device” shall not include any device which is neither designed nor redesigned for use as a weapon; any
 device, although originally designed for use as a weapon, which is redesigned for use as a signaling, pyrotechnic, line throwing,
 safety, or similar device; surplus ordnance sold, loaned, or given by the Secretary of the Army pursuant to the provisions of
 section 4684 (2), 4685, or 4686 of title 10; or any other device which the Attorney General finds is not likely to be used as a
 weapon, is an antique, or is a rifle which the owner intends to use solely for sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.

From Title 18.178

(1) the term “biological agent” means any microorganism (including, but not limited to, bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae or
     protozoa), or infectious substance, or any naturally occurring, bioengineered or synthesized component of any such
     microorganism or infectious substance, capable of causing—
   (A) death, disease, or other biological malfunction in a human, an animal, a plant, or another living organism;
   (B) deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies, or material of any kind; or
   (C) deleterious alteration of the environment;
(2) the term “toxin” means the toxic material or product of plants, animals, microorganisms (including, but not limited to,
    bacteria, viruses, fungi, rickettsiae or protozoa), or infectious substances, or a recombinant or synthesized molecule,
    whatever their origin and method of production, and includes—
   (A) any poisonous substance or biological product that may be engineered as a result of biotechnology produced by a living
       organism; or
   (B) any poisonous isomer or biological product, homolog, or derivative of such a substance;
(3) the term “delivery system” means—
   (A) any apparatus, equipment, device, or means of delivery specifically designed to deliver or disseminate a biological agent,
       toxin, or vector; or
   (B) any vector;
(4) the term “vector” means a living organism, or molecule, including a recombinant or synthesized molecule, capable of carrying a
    biological agent or toxin to a host; and
(5) the term “national of the United States” has the meaning prescribed in section 101(a)(22) of the Immigration and Nationality
    Act (8 U.S.C. 1101 (a)(22)).

Based on this the sarin and mustard gas found DO classify as weapons of mass destruction.

Public perceptions of WMD

Awareness and opinions of WMD have varied during the course of their history. Their threat is a source of unease, security and pride to different people. The anti-WMD movement is embodied most in nuclear disarmament, and led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

In 1998 University of New Mexico's Institute for Public Policy released their third report on US perceptions - including the general public, politicians and scientists - of nuclear weapons since the break up of the Soviet Union. Risks of nuclear conflict, proliferation, and terrorism were seen as substantial. While maintenance of a nuclear US arsenal was considered above average in importance, there was widespread support for a reduction in the stockpile, and very little support for developing and testing new nuclear weapons.

Also in 1998, but after the UNM survey was conducted, nuclear weapons became an issue in India's election of March, in relation to political tensions with neighboring Pakistan. Prior to the election the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced it would “declare India a nuclear weapon state” after coming to power. BJP won the elections, and on May 14, three days after India tested nuclear weapons for the second time, a public opinion poll reported that a majority of Indians favored the country’s nuclear build-up.

On April 15, 2004, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) reported that US citizens showed high levels of concern regarding WMD, and that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons should be "a very important US foreign policy goal", accomplished through multilateral arms control rather than the use of military threats. A majority also believed the US should be more forthcoming with its biological research and its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment of nuclear arms reduction, and incorrectly thought the US was a party to various non-proliferation treaties.

A Russian opinion poll conducted on August 5, 2005 indicated half the population believes new nuclear powers have the right to possess nuclear weapons. 39% believes the Russian stockpile should be reduced, though not fully eliminated.

WMD in popular culture

Weapons of mass destruction and their related impacts have been a mainstay of popular culture since the beginning of the Cold War, as both political commentary and humorous outlet.

Nuclear weapons have been a central theme of movies since The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); two of the most famous are Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Fail-Safe (1964). Biological weapons have also featured, as in Twelve Monkeys (1995). Several early James Bond films involve a madman, most notably Ernst Stavro Blofeld of the fictional terrorist organization S.P.E.C.T.R.E., who intends to use either nuclear or biological weapons in the quest for world domination. This has been parodied in the Austin Powers series with Dr. Evil.

WMDs are a popular theme in science fiction. The seminal novel Dune discusses atomic weapons, and its sequel Dune Messiah employs one called a Stone Burner. In the Star Wars universe, the Death Star is a moveable, multi-use WMD (meaning that it, unlike most WMD missiles, can be used thousands of times.) In the Babylon 5 universe, WMDs have been used a number of times, most directly by the Earth Alliance (the Earth-Minbari War uses nuclear weapons), the Army of Light (the Shadow War, also nuclear), the Centauri (Narn-Centauri War, planetary bombardment with asteroids by mass drivers), as well as on their own planet on the Isle of Selini to rid themselves of the Shadows (nuclear), and the Drakh (biological warfare against Earth). During Season 4, Episode 1 (09/03/1997 Stardate: 51003.7) of Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) consults with Borg representative Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) on how to destroy Species 8472. Janeway calls Seven of Nine's "multikinetic neutronic mine. Five million isoton yield" a "Weapon of Mass Destruction." Following up on a statement from Tuvok (Tim Russ) that it would affect the entire Solar System destroying innocent worlds, Seven of Nine replies, "It would be efficient."

In the context of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq under the guise of Saddam Hussein's alleged WMDs, the phrase became ubiquitous. A parody based on Internet Explorer's "404 Not Found" message was created, poking fun at the state of international affairs, and for a time was the #1 hit for the Google search "weapons of mass destruction". Similarly, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, February 24, 2004, George W. Bush joked about being unable to find WMD in Iraq, saying "Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere", while showing images of himself searching the White House for something. In 2003 an easyJet advertising campaign attracted controversy with a billboard ad featuring a woman's breasts with the phrase "discover weapons of mass distraction".

Sue Townsend continued her best-selling series of comic-political novels with the 2004 Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. The eponymous hero trusts Tony Blair implicitly, and writes to him asking for proof of the WMDs' existence, so he can get a refund from the travel agency where he had deposited some money for a holiday in Cyprus, since this island is now apparently no longer safe to travel to.

The 2005 series of Doctor Who contained a double episode about an alien invasion in London. In one scene, when discussing whether an attack on the aliens' space craft was warranted, politicians claimed it was necessary because the aliens had "massive weapons of destruction" which could be deployed "within forty-five seconds" — a reference to Prime Minister Tony Blair's claim in the lead-up to the Iraq War that Saddam Hussein had WMDs could be deployed within 45 minutes. In The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XVII", aliens Kang and Kodos, spoofing the Iraq War, claim that they had to invade, as Earth was working on "Weapons of Mass Disintegration." In the episode ("Rekognize") of Da Ali G Show, Ali mistakenly refers to WMDs as "BLTs" (an acronym for the popular American sandwich made of bacon, lettuce, and tomato), going so far as to ask if there was mustard gas in the BLTs.

In 2005, the Paranoia RPG published a collection of new Straight-style missions under the title "WMD". Each mission revolved around a plot device with the initials WMD. At least one of the missions involved an actual device that might have been a WMD; but, in general they simply focussed on situations rife with a sense of stress, uncertainty and fear. The hit TV show 24 typically features a different weapon of mass destruction in each season: the second, fourth and sixth seasons feature nuclear weapons, the third features a weaponized virus, and the fifth, VX nerve gas, a chemical weapon of mass destruction. In the Nextwave comic book the Beyond Corporation© is testing out "Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction" within the US, starting with a weapon called Fin Fang Foom.

Weapons of Mass Destruction is the title of an album released by the rapper Xzibit in 2004, who also called a car featured on Pimp My Ride a WMD. Faithless released the album No Roots in 2004 which contained the single "Mass Destruction", whose lyrics describe negative traits such as fear, racism, greed and inaction as "weapons of mass destruction".

Air America Radio occasionally broadcasts an advertisement for its announcers saying the network is fighting back against "Weapons of Mass Deception."

However, the mocking of the term dates back well before the Iraq War, with Hugh Cook's 1992 fantasy novel The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster satirically mentioned that the avalanche is a terrible weapon of mass destruction, outlawed by civilised countries in the conduct of war.

In a 1955 episode of the radio comedy series Hancock's Half Hour entitled "The Chef That Died of Shame", there is a joke about a UN delegate wanting the hero's dumplings added to a list of "Banned Weapons of Mass Destruction".

In video gaming culture, (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and/or personal computer) the name "Weapons of Mass Destruction" is an example of a name used to identify a clan (group of players in the online multi-player community) with a "clan tag" [WMD] (abbreviated version of the clan's name.) The use of such violent themes for the naming of a gaming community are relatively common in current popular culture.

Common hazard symbols

See main article: Hazard symbol
Name Symbol Unicode Image
Toxic symbol U+2620
Radioactive symbol U+2622
Biohazard symbol U+2623
Chemical warfare symbol N/A N/A

Radioactive weaponry/hazard symbol

The international radioactivity symbol (also known as trefoil) first appeared in 1946, at the University of California, Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. At the time, it was rendered as magenta, and was set on a blue background. It is drawn with a central circle of radius R, the blades having an internal radius of 1.5R and an external radius of 5R, and separated from each other by 60°. It is meant to represent a radiating atom. The International Atomic Energy Agency found, however, that the symbol is unintuitive and can be variously interpreted by those uneducated in its meaning, and that its role as a hazard warning was compromised as it did not clearly indicate "danger" to many non-Westerners and children who encountered it. As a result of research, a new radiation hazard symbol was developed to be placed near the most dangerous parts of radiation sources featuring a skull, someone running away, and using the color red rather than yellow as the background.

Biological weaponry/hazard symbol

Developed by Dow Chemical company in the 1960s for their containment products.

According to Charles Dullin, an environmental-health engineer who contributed to its development:

We wanted something that was memorable but meaningless, so we could educate people as to what it means.

(how to draw it)

The symbol used today as the biohazard sign is in fact a Japanese family crest, or mon. It can be found on page 195 of the book "Japanese Design Motifs: 4,260 Illustrations of Japanese Crests" translated by Fumie Adachi and published by Dover.

See also


Further reading


Weapons of Mass Destruction was the 2001-2002 Debate Resolution (policy debate).

"Resolved: The United States federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction. (2001-2002)"

Definition and origin

International law


Public perceptions

  • , The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, April 15, 2004.

External links

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