The government’s decision to charge surviving Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the use of a weapon of mass destruction struck many Americans as peculiar. At first glance, the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombs do not seem to match the definition or popular perception of a WMD. For decades, that term has been interpreted as referring to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, which uniquely possess the ability to kill people in numbers large enough to be considered massive.
Two factors, among others, help explain the government’s decision: The charge is seen by prosecutors as relatively easy to level—and prove—compared to other possible crimes, and it is one of the few federal crimes that can be punished by the death penalty.
The ease with which the government can pursue capital punishment in this instance, if it so desires, highlights the increasing irrelevance of a dispute between Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and, Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican committee member, that is holding up important new anti-nuclear and anti-radiological terrorism legislation. The tragic attacks in Boston should encourage the lawmakers to find a compromise to protect U.S. and global security against the very real threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. As horrible as the events in Boston were, had the Tsarnaev brothers actually gained access to nuclear materials, the result would have been much more recognizable as a WMD attack and would have caused far greater casualties.