States, Emergencies, and States of Emergency

Ben Anderson had a recent post on the website Berfrois in which he uses the rapid police response to the July 2012 Colorado cinema shooting to expand on our understanding of the role of “emergencies” in the construction of modern state power.  As he notes, while geographers (and others) have been focusing on the prevalence of spaces of exception wherein the state confirms citizenship to some and reduces others to bare life, much less attention has been devoted to the ways in which states have also normalized exceptional events.  Ben convincingly argues that in today’s world states maintain their legitimacy and obtain consent to rule in part through their ability to reproduce and control an environment of exceptional events as well as through their ability to construct exceptional spaces and persons.

Ben’s post spurred a few thoughts on my part, each resulting from recent news stories. Given the timing of his blogpost, it’s odd that Ben doesn’t refer to last week’s Norwegian government-sponsored report on the police response to the Anders Breivik shooting. I don’t want to make too much of this omission: While the finding that states are not always very good at managing emergency events reminds us that the establishment of emergency response as the new norm is uneven and contingent, it doesn’t take away from Ben’s central point.  Indeed, the embarrassment experienced, and the ‘blame-game’ enacted, by states when they reluctantly acknowledge their inability to manage such events (e.g. the resignation of the Norwegian police chief in response to the report’s findings) further illustrates Ben’s point about how expectations of extraordinary response capacity have become ordinary. Consider the startling (for me, at least) statement given to The Guardian by Bjørn Ivar Kruke, a crisis management specialist who contributed to the report, regarding the initial bomb blast in Oslo: “It shouldn’t be possible to drive a car up to the main entrance and walk away with a pistol in your hand. That should be expected.”

In a recent Society & Space series on the Breivik shooting none of the contributors investigates the police response (or public reaction to the police response). Even though it wasn’t his intention, I’m grateful to Ben for directing our attention to this omission.

My second, and more critical, point concerns the state-centrism of Ben’s post.  This morning I received a link to a fascinating article in The Washington Post about Roscoe Bartlett, a U.S. congressman from Maryland. Having just read Ben’s blogpost, I was struck by Bartlett’s very different way of turning emergency preparedness into (anti-)social practice. As a U.S. congressman, Bartlett might be expected to be leading the effort to normalize the state’s emergency power. However, Bartlett recognizes (and perhaps even fantasizes about) how, in a true emergency, the state will be powerless. Thus he embraces a survivalist ideology that combines a uniquely American desire to “return” to the ideal of the rugged, masculine individual alone on the frontier; a distrust of government; Christian millenarianism; and the idea that in the nation’s vast expanses there is still space to “escape” (for more on variations of this phenomenon, see, for instance Mapping the End Times by Jason Dittmer and Tristan Sturm, On the Fault Line by Carolyn Gallaher, and my own work recently published in Antipode on the Seasteading movement).

The lesson here is that an obsession with emergency preparedness can be as likely to undermine as to support state legitimacy. A fixation on potential emergencies can have this effect either by pointing to the limits in the state’s capacity (as in the example of the Breivik report) or by suggesting that there are alternative, and potentially liberating, modes for survival that lie latent within each of us and that are only waiting for the right (apocalyptic) times to be unleashed.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that such hyper-individualist, hyper-masculinist, anti-statist visions are necessarily progressive (that’s a debate that I had a very long time ago with Andrew Kirby), but they are out there and they do complicate narratives of the state of/in emergency.

Phil S.

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4 thoughts on “States, Emergencies, and States of Emergency

  1. Pingback: Ben Anderson on ‘rapid response’ | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Rapid Response Aid « rhulgeopolitics

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