On “Weaponized” Everything

It was graciousness that made me the angriest.

On my feed, Nussbaum’s article followed directly after an article where Laurie Penny accused right-wing trolls of weaponized insincerity.

Memorable images, from very good writers. But I had the uneasy feeling that this was a cheap ploy for clicks, and that I’d been seeing this word more and more often. A quick internet search showed that weaponized was rising from obscure military jargon to a metaphor for… just about everything.

Words and phrases that followed “weaponized” on Twitter in August 2016, weighted by frequency. Graphic courtesy Wordle.net.

So I started collecting examples, with a Twitter account, @PeakWeaponized. I decided to only tweet examples of particularly strained metaphor, or memes that had gotten unnervingly popular. But even then there were a wealth of examples to choose from. Some people didn’t appreciate it and blocked me immediately, just for retweeting their exact words, without any commentary other than putting it in ALL CAPS, in context with other people’s use of the word.

Where did weaponized even come from? I think the first time I saw the word was in the weeks following 9/11.

Bangor Daily News, October 20–21, 2001

Someone mailed anthrax to various US government offices and newsrooms. The fear was that the anthrax spores had been specially prepared for airborne infection — hence, weaponized anthrax.

It’s not remembered much now, but the anthrax scare was crucial in giving American life its current paranoid flavor. Terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were bad enough. But now your mailbox was a threat. It seemed as if life was never going to be normal again.

After that grand entrance, weaponized had a quiet decade and a half before the internet would rediscover it.

Social media has turned us all into headline writers, and weaponized is that rare word that tells an entire story in 10 characters. It implies that something once was familiar and harmless. But unnamed people have perverted it. Now, it can be pointed at things. One end of it is safe, and the other end is dangerous. The conspiracy wields this weapon, holding the safe end. They have already become more powerful. Are you one of the people who could find themselves on the dangerous end?

Perhaps it was inevitable that the media, seeking new ways to make us click, would arm itself with weaponized. The more incongruous the pairing, the better. A weaponized drone is just an accurate phrase, but weaponized safe space— what does that even mean?

It’s amazing to me how popular it is with professional writers and speakers, who ought to know to avoid such meretriciousness. On a recent broadcast of To the Point from KCRW, a conservative radio personality talked about the “weaponized and darkest sides of the media” (15:33), and the liberal public radio host commended him for his brilliant phrasing.

However, weaponized is not just popular with the media. There is a low, constant murmur of left-wingers who decry evils like weaponized bigotry, as if bigotry was not already a thing that harms. But the term is even more beloved by right-wing conspiracy theorists — the thousands of InfoWars fans who mutter to themselves about the weaponized IRS.

“How about Weaponized News, because everything is weaponized against you.” — Stuart Webb, creator of “anti-establishment” website and YouTube channel WeaponizedNews.com. He discusses the importance of being involved in local media, and the Illuminati.

Or perhaps it may finally be overused enough to inspire widespread mockery. Twitter accounts like Weaponized Ed-Tech have popped up just in the last month, and you see people making jokes like “weaponized cat pictures”. Even Slate — itself no stranger to stoking the flames of internet argument — has written an article about the phenomenon, although of course they had to add an angrifying twist that the overuse of the word a good thing. Maybe the word will be laughed into oblivion before 2016 is out.

Sadly, I expect that will only happen when the internet finds some even more insidious trend to abuse. Maybe abuse, or as Trump is lately using, bigot. But I find the current popularity of weaponized disturbing. The word takes us out of a place of discourse, and into a world of threats and conspiracies. Of treachery, even in the ordinary objects around us. And in an American context, the fear of weaponized everything may justify shooting back.