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. 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”.


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.


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.

This makes no sense

From ABC’s AM on Monday, on the rise of anti-government rhetoric in the USA:

BILL CLINTON: A lot of the things that have been said, they create a climate in which people who are vulnerable to violence because they’re disoriented, like Timothy McVeigh was, are more likely to act. We ought to have a lot of political dissent a lot of political argument. Nobody is right all the time but we also have to take responsibility for the possible consequences of what we say.

LISA MILLAR: After first raising his concerns two days ago the former president has been criticised by conservatives including talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: With this comment – you have just set the stage for violence in this country. Any future acts of violence are on your shoulders Mr Clinton.

Is Limbaugh’s comment somehow completely out of context? (I heard it told the same way on another report from a different outlet.)

How does it make even the slightest bit of sense? You can argue that Clinton is being alarmist by making a link back to McVeigh, or being overly critical of the Tea Party movement, sure. But when Clinton asks people to be mindful of inciting violence, Limbaugh responds that it’s therefore Clinton’s fault if it happens?

It’s not just at odds with the traditional conservative view of taking personal responsibility, unless I’m missing something fundamental, it also makes no sense whatsoever.

Phoenix changing

When I visited Phoenix, Arizona in 1996, it appeared to be the archetypal car-dominated city. I was told pretty much the only PT was buses once an hour. The freeways were packed at rush hour. Nobody walked anywhere.

The downtown area was (especially on weekends) so deserted that they had to have signs saying “Welcome to downtown Phoenix” so that you knew you were downtown.

While the people were friendly, it was exactly the type of city I’d hate to live in.

But it looks like it’s changing: they’re getting a lot more medium-density and mixed-use development, and… trams.

A new tram/light-rail line, 20 miles long. Quite impressive. Having spent all that money on infrastructure, they didn’t skimp on the services, either — every 10 mins weekdays, 15 weekends, 20 evenings.

Obviously it’s only one route, but apparently already they’ve got more patronage than expected, and are looking at more lines.

Nice to see even the most car-dominated cities are starting to move in the right direction.

(via Treehugger)