Weapons of Mass Destruction

27 March 2014


This week we’re thinking about the ethics of Weapons of Mass Destruction — a massive topic. But for once, at least we don’t have to search for a definition.  It comes straight from a United Nations commission in 1947: Weapons of mass destruction “include atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.”

That’s an interesting list, but I’m not sure it’s a definition.  It’s not clear what nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons have in common.  It can’t just be that they’re all horrible. Is it because they're more destructive than any others that we call them Weapons of Mass Destruction? In 1947 they weren’t; the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima -- each caused in the neighborhood of 75,000 deaths -- were actually less destructive than the conventional bombing raids on Tokyo or Dresden. 

But it only took two atomic bombs to do all that damage, compared to thousands of bombs dropped on Dresden. Could that efficiency be morally relevant? Think of today’s hydrogen bombs -- they're so efficient at killing that one of them dropped at the order of a deranged megalomaniac could wipe out the entire population of New York City.

And where does that leave biological and chemical weapons? They’re not nearly as destructive, but they are efficient. That’s what makes them frightening, especially in an age of terrorism. A terrorist equipped with the right chemical or biological weapon could kill a lot more people than he could with a machine gun, or with a conventional bomb strapped to his waist.

But I’m still not convinced that the efficient killing of people makes a moral difference. Was it really worse for Assad to gas a thousand people in Syria rather than gun them down? It just seems there's something worse about WMDs that we haven’t quite put our finger on.

But while we’re struggling to find a moral difference between WMDs and conventional weapons, it’s important to realize how we got where we are. In 1947, when the US was the only nuclear power, we had an opportunity to rid the world forever of these weapons.  And it is a moral tragedy that we failed to do so.

That said, it doesn’t do much good to keep living in the past. The genie is already out of the bottle, and the world is awash in these weapons. Today any would-be terrorist can google how to build a nuclear bomb; chemical weapons are everywhere; germ warfare is just around the corner. And of course we’re not alone in the nuclear club anymore -- there are now nine known nuclear powers. If you look at how we tiptoe around those nuclear powers, you’ve got to ask why any reasonable nation wouldn’t want to get their hands on some nuclear weapons.

That’s a frightening thought, one that makes it seem inevitable that some day these things are going to be used on a massive scale. Perhaps a conversation with our guest, Scott Sagan, will alleviate some of these fears.

Comments (8)

gee's picture


Thursday, March 27, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Does it matter what is used

Does it matter what is used to kill - aside from the pain fear or lasting damage done to the people and planet. A guy with a gun a fertilizer bomb a car or a plane really all the same if your the one who died. The problem with weapons of mass destruction is the power they give one individual or group over large amounts of people. We need to respect each others right to life. The act of killing another person is so extreme that it should not even be on the table. Sadam used the threat against Iran in order to be left alone but it ended up being an excuse to invade and kill him.

ashtonpeter's picture


Friday, March 28, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

It will be interesting to see

It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court decides. It sounds to me that efforts are being made to maintain reasonable boundaries. In spite of that, the issue of guns in public should always be treated with proper caution. Opening up gun laws would be considered a real pay day by the gun lobby, but the public safety must always be the primary concern. Remember, Americans do have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Public safety makes that possible for each of us. Read more at: Gun Control Amendment

richarli's picture


Wednesday, April 9, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Nuclear weapons are a

Read Arming Mother Nature by Jacob Darwin Hamblin to learn more about the history of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are a humanitarian issue for many reasons. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite incredible suffering and obstacles, have asked civil society to ban nuclear weapons because they are so incredibly inhuman. The question, however is not how awful the different types of weapons are. The question is what action do we each take to end injustice and war? We owe those who have suffered to ban nuclear weapons and all war, see icanw.org to learn more. Banning nuclear weapons is a rational step to ending all war. Nuclear weapons today are thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also this is a humanitarian issue because at least 80% of the nuclear fuel chain, the mining, milling, production, testing and storage of nuclear materials takes place where remaining indigenous communities live, worldwide. When we are discussing nuclear weapons and energy, we need to include these voices. The money spent on nuclear weapons should be going to help people meet their needs worldwide and creating a just and sustainable world. Si se peude!

Dabrain88's picture


Sunday, April 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

So others having WMD give us

So others having WMD give us an excuse to also possess WMD? So it makes us great and noble to inflict an- other country with what they would drop on us? Two wrongs don't make a right. I admit. I am a somewhat pacifist. We only want to possess WMD out of the fear that other countries have power over us.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

In my opinion, there is no

In my opinion, there is no ethic associated with the existence or defense of weapons of mass destruction. Previous commenters appear to agree with me on this notion...at least in part. It is all pretty Slim Pickens (may he rest in peace). There are no excuses for our global behaviors---only reasons connected with ONE human failure: fear. Certainly, there are at least seven more human failures---those "sins" noted in scriptural texts---but those are all connected with number eight, as noted in the previous sentence. My brother and I had a discussion, nearly twenty years ago. He asked me then: what is mankind's greatest problem? I thought about it a bit, and, responded: fear. He said he would think about that. We have not yet re-visited that topic, but I expect we shall soon. In any case, we are in deep do do. Pretty much. The notion of historionic effect just keeps coming back---again and again. Maybe it is more than a notion...hmmmm.
As always, and in all ways, Neuman.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, May 1, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

This was quite the show.  I

This was quite the show.  I wish that I could have participated in the chat as I have several questions for Scott about what was an incredible history and still a prevalent and timely concern for the world at large.
In reading through the chat... I saw that Scott posed a question that was never answered.  I followed directly with Scott and thought I would post it here for the sake of the community.
Chat is here...
Scott's question was this...

Apr 4 2014, 12:13 PM
ScottSagan: One personal story: I used to work in the Pentagon and because of that I had my book, Moving Targets, reviewed for classification purposes. When I wrote that given the yield of American ICBM warheads and the co-location of military bases in the USSR to cities,any large scale use of nuclear weapons against military targets only would still kill millions of innocent Soviet citizens, the Pentagon censors said that there was one classified word in that statement. Can any of you guess which word they thought
Apr 4 2014, 12:14 PM
ScottSagan: Can any of you guess which word they thought was classified?
Apr 4 2014, 12:14 PM
ScottSagan: Think about that and I will tell the answer later.
Here is his reply when I pinged him to elucidate...

On Apr 11, 2014, at 6:46 PM, "Tim Smith"  wrote:
What was the word the censors thought was classified?
Scott Sagan 
Apr 11
to me, ssagan
Sent from my iPhone
If that doesn't sum up the scary times that we lived and are currently living I don't know what does.  
Dr. Sagan pushed us all to read Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser.  I finished it a few weeks ago and let me concur that it is a worthy use of time.  I'm trying to get a copy of Scott's book 'Limits of Safety' now but it's not that easy to come by (except on Amazon of course.)
I would really have liked to hear Scott talk about the Crimea and the containment strategy the US used and is proposing.  It would seem like the lack of US response to Syria encouraged this boldness from Russia.  I would especially like to hear his thoughts on how the situation might have been different if Ukraine was still holding a nuclear arsenal.  
Heady show ... thanks for this.

Guest's picture


Sunday, December 7, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I believe that in order to

I believe that in order to prevent the spread of WMD and related materials to non-state actors, initiatives in the following areas must be considered: improving the security of existing stockpiles, dismantling said stockpiles more quickly and efficiently, and improving border security and the tracking of suspect shipments through increased communication among all stakeholders. Technical and financial assistance to low income countries, or poorly-funded international organizations, will likely be necessary to ensure maximum effectiveness.

JohnnySawyers's picture


Thursday, June 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Almost every one will think

Almost every one will think that weapons of mass destruction are bombs, guns and such stuff. For me the worst weapons are media that destroy the cultures and take people towards negative things. Reading british essay writers on negative role of media you will realize that its the worst source of destruction of generations.