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.

Some thoughts on 9/11 ten years on

9/11. Is there any other one-off event that is known throughout the western world by its date?

Of course, if it had happened anywhere else, it would have been called 11/9.

But it didn’t happen anywhere else. Only the USA is big, brave, brash, bold and independent enough that it would buck the trend and stick with its own measurements and date format — perhaps the same qualities that have also made it such a symbol of freedom, democracy, enterprise and globalisation (and imperialism?) that in turn made it such a target for the terrorists.

Other places, other cities and countries have been attacked since by terrorists, but none with such force. Nor has any other single attack any incurred such a response.

I was watching a programme on SBS2 the other night on the World Trade Center: the building of it, the Frenchman who walked between the towers on a rope, its effect on the city, and its eventual destruction. The footage of the day replayed now is as horrific as it was when it happened.

A friend of a friend, who I don’t know, lost a sister in the WTC. I hope all those directly touched by this anniversary, and its aftermath, are doing okay this week.

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden is a good example of a moral issue that for me is more grey than black and white.

I would like to think that I would never wish anybody dead, nor be glad at hearing of someone’s demise.

But if ever I were to waver on that, it would be for someone who caused the deaths of thousands of people.

There are questions over the operation of course. At first they seemed to be claiming that he was armed, and used a woman as a human shield. Now they’re saying he was unarmed… but reaching for a gun?

The compound was described in some reports as a “mansion”. Gotta say it doesn’t look much like a mansion to me.

The future

I think we all know it doesn’t mean the end for al-Qaeda of course, nor for global terrorism.

But as some commentators have said, perhaps other events are overtaking them. Perhaps we can hope that the democracy movement and protests in Egypt and elsewhere will continue to spread, bringing change to the Middle East that makes extremists obsolete and/or marginalised, as most of them are in democracies around the world?

MX

Have to pity MX. The biggest story of the week, and it was breaking just as they were going to press. Normally they have their stories written by midday, but this was emerging at about 12:30pm, and wasn’t confirmed until about an hour later.

Credit to them though; they managed to re-do their front page (though I saw some copies without the OBL story). However they obviously got the page done before the detail was confirmed, as it referred to bin Laden’s death being a week earlier, using a bomb, citing Fox News’s “multiple sources”.

MX: bin Laden dead

Whoops. I suppose in that situation you just have to do what you can.

The Example

The Example, by Tom Taylor and Colin Wilson (published by Gestalt Books), might be the first graphic novel to be set entirely within the confines of Flinders Street Station.

The Example - graphic novel cover

It’s a short but thought-provoking read, combining a most-of-Western-world issue — paranoia over terrorism — with a more decidedly local Melbourne issue: the trains.Thumbs up!

Speaking of terrorism and paranoia, the other book I’ve read recently is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, which was a terrific, if chilling, account of a man who stayed behind to help after Katrina, and got locked-up for it with no charge, no lawyer, no phone call.Thumbs up!

Did we get fooled again?

Last night I found myself watching some of the Concert For NYC, in particular The Who’s performance. I’m still not going to splurge out on their forthcoming concert (dubbed rather cruelly by one friend as “Who’s left?”). But this four song performance from 2001 is great music. And remembering it in context, very moving, a gesture across the Atlantic, reaching out to a shattered city.

What I found fascinating is the set ends in the seminal protest song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. If you’re familiar with the lyrics, you’ll know that many interpret it as a rallying cry against politicians of all sides pulling the wool over the populace’s eyes, justifying painful wars and revolutions for the same reasons as before.

Ring any bells?

And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war

Sitting here in 2004, as what many would claim is an unjust war we should never have got involved in continues to stagger towards an ever-distant conclusion, the lyrics have more relevance today than in a long time.

Let’s just hope that last week’s handover of Iraq to the Iraqis can help bring a lasting peace.

PS. On a more superficial note, how come it’s only blokes who ever like The Who?

The war entry

As I think about world events, and look through my diary entries for this month, it occurs to me how self-absorbed I might seem. This is not really the case – at least I hope it isn’t, though I’m not about to use this an excuse to launch into a 3000 word study on how self-absorbed I might or might not be to try and figure it out.

It’s just that generally I try to avoid talking politics and heavy stuff here. Or if I do, I’m looking for an amusement angle, which isn’t really there at the moment.

But someone asked what my take is on current events, so here we go: here are my thoughts on the current situation. No doubt some of these points will have people seeing red and entering nasty comments, and demanding that I go to various web sites of their choosing for re-education.

  • Australia suffered a big impact from the Bali bombings, which was our biggest death toll ever to terrorism – 88 Australians dead, and as well as about 100 others. There certainly seem to be links between Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Al Qaeda, and if any country is qualified to go after either of them, it’s us. So I suspect many see our involvement in the action in Afghanistan as reasonable. But then, that seems to have wide military backing from a number of nations. Does it make us a target? Were we a target in Bali because of our involvement in Afghanistan? Or just because we’re a prosperous western nation? Good question.
  • I think Saddam is a horrendous tyrant, and is in my top ten of world leaders who should be toppled, but I have not seen any convincing evidence of a link between him and international terrorism groups such as Al Qaeda and JI, or any link whatsoever to Bali or September 11th.
  • So, if being a horrendous tyrant is all that you need to get a coalition of western forces ousting you from power nowadays, I’m interested to see who is next on the list. Somehow I doubt there is anybody. Bush’s comment a few months ago that "This is the guy that tried to kill my dad" makes it sound (a) like it’s some kind of vendetta, and (b) like the plot of a movie sequel:
    Gulf War II – This time, it’s personal
    .
  • I am undecided whether or not Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, and is therefore a threat to the rest of the world. He might well have them, but it seems the UN never found them. Colon Powell’s PowerPoint slides didn’t convince me any more than they convinced anybody else who needed convincing.
  • Australia has a few thousand troops in the coalition. It’s probably more a symbolic contribution than providing anything to the coalition that the US and British forces can’t do themselves. I hope they’ve got some fairly good co-ordination between the various forces happening, because in the business world, mixing large groups of people attacking different aspects of the one goal, and trying not to trip over each other, is a recipe for disaster. Throw deadly weapons into the mix and… well
  • I don’t for one minute subscribe to the simplistic "blood for oil" or "we must fight for the security of the world" lines. This whole issue is full of shades of grey, it’s definitely not black and white. As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages for the different people involved all over the place.
  • But many of these points are now pretty much academic. The war has started now… I can only hope that it is quick, that a minimum of innocent people are killed or injured, and that this time, a proper conclusion is reached.

That’s all I can think of for now.

Actually I think the efforts of the coalition forces might be better directed at the smeggers at work who shut off everyone’s web access and made everyone re-apply for it, as well as the people who are making the paperwork involved take longer than wading through an ocean of molasses. It’s ludicrous – quite apart from not being able to look up reference material for my job, if I want to know what’s going on in the world I have to go outside and ask somebody, or try and browse the news on WAP at argh cents a minute.

Flowers

After lunch I took a walk up to state Parliament House. A blanket of flowers covers the steps, left there by people in memory of the Bali bombing. Judging from the notes, most had been left there by strangers, rather than relatives of victims. Above, blowing in the wind, the flags are still at half mast. People were lining up to sign a condolence book.

Then I walked up a block and found a bunch of blocked-off streets and abicycle lap race in progress. Cool stuff.

Collective consciousness

At 8:47am this morning as I was driving along, car headlights lit up along the road. Not all of them, by any means, but probably close to two-thirds of those that I passed. It was a simple, yet poignant reminder of September 11th last year, a gesture suggested by a local newspaper, which has been taken up nationwide. 14 hours too early, it’s true, but it’s the thought that counts. Not just your own memories of that day, but the fact that others are thinking about it with you.

Of course, I wonder how many people will forget their lights are on when they get to where they’re going this morning, and if it will be a nation of flat car batteries tonight.