The language of disasters: active shooter, WMDs, robocalls

Tragic events in Boston last week.

Being quite interested in language, a couple of things about the use of words caught my eye as events unfolded.

Active shooter

This is something I’ve noticed before, during all-too-often incidents in the US: the term they now use is “active shooter”. In this case it was at MIT, where a policeman was killed — it’s suspected by the bombers.

LiveLeak.com: BREAKING: Active Shooter at MIT

In Australia we’d probably say there’s a gunman on the loose (it’s almost always a bloke, right?) or in terms of an armed and dangerous suspect. Perhaps it’s because the sight of any gun in the hands of a civilian in a public area is so rare in Australia that we haven’t developed such succinct shorthand.

Also in the US, “gunman” might have different connotations. So might “shooter” (which is less gender-specific) on its own.

I wonder if the culture of gun ownership has led to these words not being adequate, plus the (unfortunately) regular need for a term which quickly conveys the situation, thus they’ve moved to “active shooter”.

Robocalls

After the active shooter(s) got away, automated telephone calls were used to tell residents in some areas of Boston to stay in their homes.

These are apparently known as robocalls. Similar things have been used here and in other countries, in emergency and other situations (remember the John Howard election call?) but I wasn’t aware of this particular term before.

WMDs

The surviving bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has been charged with use of a weapon of mass destruction.

I find this fascinating. The information released publicly suggests the suspects made the bombs out of pressure cookers. Are these Weapons of Mass Destruction now?

Make no mistake, these bombs had a terrible toll: three dead at the scene, and scores injured, many seriously.

But I had always assumed that WMDs meant that we were talking about destruction on a large scale. Missiles, military grade explosives, chemical weapons, even nuclear devices. The types of things that take out whole regions of cities, or at least whole city blocks.

Notably however, and this may be relevant, is that there seems to be a belief that the bombers planned to perform more attacks… though anything else they had planned doesn’t quite fit into the use of charge.