News and events

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.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

7 replies on “The language of disasters: active shooter, WMDs, robocalls”

On a (marginally) related topic, the pamphlet handed to me this morning at Brighton Beach station “Changes to your travel” states that on Friday “trains will run to a normal weekday timetable with some minor cancellations”.
Similar to your theme today of “language”, does anyone know the definition of a “minor cancellation” (or “major cancellation” for that matter)?

A minor cancellation? If my train was cancelled then I would call that a major problem! They should have said a small amount of cancelations – not minor cancelations which really does not make any sense.

With regards to WMD – I think it can mean anything on a large scale. The bombs may have been hand made from pressure cookers but the fact is that the damage they caused in my mind was ‘mass(ive)’! 3 people dead, hundreds injured and 1,000’s affected mentally. Not to mention a city of 4 million people shut down for a few days .


They may as well say “genocide” next time 3 people die.

BTW, on the same day 79 people died from 26 car bombs in Iraq.

American idiots.

A bullet normally kills one person ( except for the bullet which almost killed Governor Conally ).

Anything that kills more than one person, is a weapon of mass destruction.

When a news story is breaking and events are still unfolding a reporter is often heard to say “the situation is fluid”. I heard this phrase mentioned several several times during the coverage of this event. I’ve never heard it said on Australian news reports.

Ah Robocalls. Good to have a name for them. So the reminder sms that your doctor sends, or the CFA telling you to flee for your lives could be a Robotext. Useful.

Nails and ballbearings in two pressure cookers are not weapons of mass destruction. WMD’s need to be able to potentially kill tens of thousands.

Apparently, US Criminal law defines most of the (non-personal) weapons the US armed forces use as WMDs – land mines, RPGs and so on. This is in addition to the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN) which the US has stated the use of by a foreign power against US interests will result in the US responding with WMDs of its own – but given the only WMD the US wields is nuclear, it means if someone lobs a chemical weapon (mustard gas for example) at the US, they’re going to nuke you in return – so don’t do that.

Methinks the legislators were a little… loose… with their use of the term WMD when framing their domestic laws. It degrades the horror of WMDs to include any rocket with more than four ounces of propellant. I’d wonder what term NASA uses for said rockets.

But on the upside, Saddam Hussein definitely had WMDs and so the Iraq war wasn’t for nothin’.

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