Weapons of mass destruction

By Bill Steigerwald

“WMD” is not the latest independent TV channel.

“WME” is not another pro wrestling league.

“Weaponizing” is not a new secret password coined by NRA gun-man Charlton Heston.

All three are among the new vocabulary words of terror we citizens must learn if we hope to fully understand the “War on Terrorism,” the bummer of a war movie now playing everywhere on the home front but not yet (at least not publicly) showing in the theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As both Time and Newsweek will define for you in Week 3 of their post-Sept. 11 coverage, WMD is war-speak for Weapons of Mass Destruction (i.e., biological, chemical and nuclear weapons).

WME stands for Weapons of Mass Effect (i.e., truck bombs or hijacked airliners that are used, as Time says, “to cause great loss of life and spread chaos and despair” among the populace).

Weaponizing, meanwhile, is the very difficult task of taking something deadly like cyanide or smallpox, turning it into a form that remains virulent for a long time and delivering it in massive quantities to hurt as many humans as possible. (It’s not an easy thing for terrorists in tents to do.)

It’s a lovely new world of terror we’re all suddenly part of. And as we wait for word of commando attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Time and Newsweek do their best to clue us in on what we have to know and do – and fear – back here in the homeland.

In “America on Guard,” Time devotes much of its space to explaining why two things – one good, one bad – are unlikely to happen.

The good thing is that terrorists will not soon be using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (WMDs). Mainly, it’s because they’re too technologically tricky to build and weaponize, but also because truck bombs (WMEs) are so cheap, so effective and so easy to deploy against things like tunnels, bridges and electricity grids.

The bad thing is that it looks pretty certain that Tom Ridge, the director of the new and fabulous Office of Homeland Security, is doomed to failure.

Time makes it clear that even a square-jawed war hero with cabinet-level powers won’t be able to coordinate the chaotic jumble of 40 overlapping, bickering and bureaucratic federal law-enforcement agencies that are supposed to thwart terrorism at home.

In “How Sacred Should You Be,” its assessment of the prospects of terrorists using WMDs, Newsweek reports that intelligence, national-security, law-enforcement and scientific communities are divided about “the risk of attacks with ‘bugs or gas,’ as insiders call germ and chemical weapons.”

Some experts think terrorists could make and deliver them. It’s known that terrorists are trying – they have been shopping for things like botulinum toxin in Czechoslovakia and conducting experiments in the Afghan desert on dogs. But Newsweek concludes by quoting an expert who says, for now, “the possibility of a bioweapon attack by agents of Osama bin Laden is ‘highly unlikely.'”

Meanwhile, as the events of Sept. 11 fade and life in America returns to a state of nervous normality, we could someday end up dead from biological or chemical terrorism. As Newsweek concludes, “Bugs-and-gas is a problem for the long term … in short, the kind of threat that we’re not very good at addressing.”