You’ve probably heard that Timothy McVeigh will be executed next month, having been found guilty of attacking a federal building in Oklahoma City with a “weapon of mass destruction.” This column is not in defense of McVeigh, but it is, perhaps, an indictment of Clinton-Gore-Reno.

You may have wondered — since 168 people lost their lives — why they charged McVeigh with attacking a building. Because, the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 authorizes the death penalty for attacking a federal building with a “weapon of mass destruction” if even one person dies as a result of that attack. But that law also authorizes the death penalty for more than 60 other federal crimes — several of which would have been more appropriate for McVeigh to have been charged with than attacking a building with a WMD. So why charge him with that particular crime?

You may have even wondered how a few barrels of fertilizer soaked in fuel oil qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction. The only true weapon of mass destruction is a nuke, which destroys (and kills) mainly by an explosive blast equivalent to thousands of tons of high explosive.

The Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act — the so-called Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act — of 1996 defines a “weapon of mass destruction” as “any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of — (A) toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; (B) a disease organism; or (C) radiation or radioactivity.”

For Nunn, Lugar and Domenici, weapons of mass destruction are defined in terms of human casualties, not in destruction of property. And, even for nukes, it is not the explosive blast, but the accompanying radiation, that counts under NLD. Explosives are not included as WMD, even though they are certainly destructive devices, whereas disease organisms are included, even though they are certainly not destructive devices.

President Clinton’s Executive Order 12938 — entitled “Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” — of November 14, 1994 also defines weapons of mass destruction to be “nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.”

The first report, in December 1999, to the President and to Congress of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, begins by essentially rejecting — as a misnomer — the term “weapons of mass destruction.”

With the exception of nuclear weapons, none of the unconventional weapons by itself is, in fact, capable of wreaking mass destruction, at least not in structural terms. Indeed, the terminology “weapons of mass casualties” may be a more accurate depiction of the potentially lethal power that could be unleashed by chemical, biological, or non-explosive radiological weapons. The distinction is more than rhetorical and is critical to understanding the vastly different levels of technological skills and capabilities, weapons expertise, production requirements, and dissemination or delivery methods needed to undertake an effective attack using either chemical or biological weapons in particular.

When you stop and think about it, an explosive blast rarely kills masses of people. A terrorist’s bomb couldn’t have killed — and didn’t kill –all those people on PanAm Flight 103. The small bomb simply blew a hole in the skin of the 747 and all its occupants were killed when the Boeing 747, no longer airworthy, crashed at Locherbie, Scotland. The powerful World Trade Center bombing was supposed to collapse the building, but didn’t, and there were not many casualties. However, the strikingly similar Murrah building bombing in Oklahoma City, did, and it was the building collapse that caused nearly all the casualties.

The distinction between a WMD and “weapon of mass casualties” is much more than semantic, too, when one thinks about why terrorists do what they do. According to the WMD Terrorism Panel:

Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm, through acts designed to coerce others into actions they otherwise would not undertake or into refraining from actions that they desired to take. All terrorist acts are crimes. Many would also be violations of the rules of war, if a state of war existed. This violence or threat of violence is generally directed against civilian targets. The motives of all terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity.

McVeigh certainly appears to have been a terrorist, all right, and did cause — by his actions — the death of 168 people, most of whom were not federal employees. However, he does not appear to have directed his attack against “civilians.” Rather, he says he attacked the “government,” in retaliation for what the BATF and FBI did to innocent civilians at Ruby Ridge and at Waco. In fact, McVeigh was on the scene at Waco and he did attack the federal building on the second anniversary of the Waco Massacre.

So it must have been immediately obvious to Attorney General Reno and the FBI that anyone attacking a federal building housing offices of the FBI and the BATF — on the Waco Massacre anniversary — was actually attacking them. Eight federal employees actually were killed. There have been reports — perhaps untrue — that Reno et al may even have been expecting some sort of attack on that anniversary and had warned FBI and BATF agents not to be in their offices that day. If it is true, it’s too bad they didn’t warn the operators of the day-care center in the building.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol arrested McVeigh within a few hours of the blast for driving a motor vehicle without a license plate. Within a few days, Janet Reno had in her clutches a decorated Gulf-War veteran and a couple of old Army buddies who were believed to have had some knowledge of what McVeigh intended to do before he actually did it. After months of investigation, that was still all she had.

Obviously, if McVeigh’s intention had been to kill BATF and FBI agents to avenge the Waco Massacre, Reno should have charged McVeigh with “murder one” — deliberate, cold-blooded murder of the eight federal employees that were killed — a federal crime for which the death penalty is authorized — and the attempted murder of all those agents who weren’t there that day.

But she didn’t. Instead, she charged McVeigh with attacking a federal building with a “weapon of mass destruction.” Why?

If McVeigh had simply wanted to blow up the federal building, he could have done that in the middle of the night when no one was in it. Moreover, if he had blown up the federal building in the middle of the night, and someone — a lone night watchman or a janitor — had been killed, then McVeigh could have been convicted of that distinctly different federal crime and sentenced to death.

One explanation for why McVeigh was not charged by Reno with premeditated murder of federal officials — a federal crime — or with simply blowing up the federal building, also a federal crime, could be that she wanted to shift the focus from her actions at Waco to his in Oklahoma City. Gulf War veteran McVeigh has reportedly called all unintended deaths “collateral damage” which inevitably occurs not only in Iraq, but when the United States Air Force bombs aspirin factories in Sudan or suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan or detachments of the Serbian armed forces. Clinton and Reno hoped that by charging McVeigh with using a “weapon of mass destruction” — or, more accurately, a “weapon of mass casualties” — all of you not paying much attention could be persuaded that crazy McVeigh’s goal had been all along to simply terrorize the civilian population by killing as many of us as possible.

So McVeigh was transformed from decorated Gulf-War veteran into a crazed domestic terrorist who wantonly used a weapon of mass destruction to kill as many innocents as he could. He was charged under USC Title 18 Sec. 2332a with the use of a weapon of mass destruction against property owned, leased or used by an agency of the United States Government, and since deaths resulted, and that section allows for it, Clinton and Reno demanded that he be put to death.

For the purposes of Sec.2332, the term ”weapon of mass destruction” means:

  1. any destructive device [as defined in section 921];

  2. 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;

  3. any weapon involving a disease organism; or

  4. any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life.

Well, obviously, McVeigh didn’t use a “weapon of mass destruction” as defined by Nunn-Lugar-Domenici, or by President Clinton in Executive Order 19328.

But, how about “destructive device” as defined in section 921? Can Reno nail him for using that flavor of “weapon of mass destruction”?

You bet. In Section 921, the term ”destructive device” means:

  1. any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas bomb, grenade, rocket, missile, mine or similar device;

  2. any type of weapon (other than a shotgun or a shotgun shell which the Secretary 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

  3. 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.

Can you think of anything that definition doesn’t cover? So, apparently, if McVeigh had attacked the Murrah building at night with a flare gun and had scared a night watchman to death with it — rather than collapsing the Murrah building on hundreds of people by detonating in broad daylight a several thousand-pound ammonium-nitrate fuel-oil (ANFO) bomb outside the building — it would have made no difference to Reno. The same statute applies.

Clinton and Reno have been largely successful in molding the public perception of what McVeigh did and why he did it. Clinton is the guy who called the two terrorists — who reportedly stood at attention and saluted as they set off the bomb that almost sank the USS Cole — “cowards.” So, by now, you probably don’t believe McVeigh’s claim that he was trying to avenge the Clinton-Reno actions he witnessed at Waco, and was — and still is — willing to shorten his life here on earth for the cause.

But, if “all terrorist acts are political,” many of them “designed to coerce” politicians into “refraining from actions that they desired to take,” then how could McVeigh have been crazy enough to think that he could prevent the BATF and the FBI from killing innocent civilians in the future by collapsing a building on hundreds of innocent civilians?

Maybe McVeigh isn’t that crazy. He just failed in his mission. But there are those we don’t know about who must have helped McVeigh — or at least would have been ready to help if they had known — that may not be that crazy either. And Clinton-Reno executing McVeigh isn’t going to make those guys any more forgiving about “collateral” damage inflicted — past, present and future — by agencies of the federal government. One has to hope that the sins of the Clinton-Gore-Reno Administration are not visited — in the future — upon the Bush-Cheney Administration.

According to Vice President Cheney, “In terms of a threat to the United States, and our security, I think we have to be more concerned than we ever have been about so-called homeland defense, the vulnerability of our system to different kinds of attacks. Some of it homegrown, like Oklahoma City. Some inspired by terrorists external to the United States — the World Trade towers bombing, in New York.”

Maybe we also have to be more concerned than we ever have been, before, about the “collateral damage” we inflict on innocents — both domestic and foreign.

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