Incendiary Words: Of Detonations and Denotations

I find it curious that the definition of “weapon of mass destruction” has become more elastic and quite geographically dependent in recent years. When it is used to describe events overseas, the phrase still seems to include only lethal chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. But here in the States, it can mean something as small as a pressure cooker packed with 10 pounds of black powder, or even just a home-made hand grenade containing perhaps eight ounces of explosive. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has ordered laser-guided GBU-38 JDAMs up to 2,000 pounds dropped on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen, yet nobody calls those “weapons of mass destruction.” Curious, indeed.

I’d like to emphasize an important point: Words and phrases do indeed have specific meanings. It is troubling when journalists, law enforcement officers, and politicians sling around a phrase like “weapon of mass destruction” when they actually mean “destructive device.” The standards used by prosecuting attorneys should be exacting and scrupulous, but some prosecutors now seem to decide who to charge (or not charge) based on appearances and the relative popularity of those involved. An aside for any readers who might someday be impaneled on a jury or a grand jury: I urge you to show wisdom and discernment. Adhere to the strict definitions of the black letter law, but remember that you have the right to weigh both the facts of the case and the validity of the law itself.

Because so many items are “dual use,” it is important to distinguish the intent of the owners of explosive or incendiary chemical compounds, and their precursor chemicals. Nearly every household in America at any given time contains three items: gasoline, Mason jars and rags. But that doesn’t mean that we intend to make Molotov Cocktails and burn down the White House. Nay, 99.99% of Americans use those items in peaceful ways–like fueling our cars, and for canning peaches. Similarly, hundreds of thousands of recreational shooters own some Tannerite or Sure Shot exploding target powder. But that doesn’t mean that we intend to contain it in cookware and position it at the terminus of marathon races. And there are tens of thousands of pounds of Thermite in private hands, but that powder can be used for both practical welding and for burning a hole in an APC‘s engine block.

In the past decade the distinction between connotation and denotation has been blurred by politics. The definitions of words should not change with every shift in the winds of public sentiment. Our society has already suffered from four decades of Situational Ethics. Heaven help us in this new era of Situational Definitions. A rocket scientist or military engineer can teach you about Sympathetic Detonations, but it is 21st Century television commentators who have introduced us to the era of Sympathetic Denotations. We now live in an Orwellian world where a semi-auto rifle is arbitrarily called an “assault rifle” if it has black plastic furniture, where a standard capacity magazine is called a “high capacity” magazine, where the confiscation and redistribution of wealth is dubbed “fairness.” This also a new age when folks who are given free health care, HD televisions, free cell phones, and enough money to be able to afford air conditioning are deemed to be “living in poverty.” The fluidity of our language is evidence that America is sliding into oblivion.

Hold fast to the true meaning of words and phrases, or we are doomed. – J.W.R.

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