Emergency alert

Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Scarry is professor of aesthetics at Harvard University and a social theorist. In Thinking, she examines the fact that modern governments have a tendency to use “claims of emergency” and then proceed to undermine democratic traditions while increasing the power of single individuals or offices at the top of the chain. Citizens, argues Scarry, allow governments to take actions that in the past would have been debated in the public eye.

Ultimately, Scarry points out that thinking clearly and acting quickly are not mutually exclusive, despite the opposite assertions of many governments.  Her main concern is that societies watch abridging of rights and laws directly in front of them and accept these changes as long as they themselves are not directly impacted.  Scarry believes that in order to prevent such “emergency” decisions being reached, societies must both protect people and feel obligated to do so.  The book, really an extended essay at about 108 pages, makes some analogies, goes globe trotting for examples (China, Japan, Switzerland, etc), and references anyone from Clinton Rossiter to Aesop.

In Rossiter, Scarry finds commentary on emergency rule that, in Rossiter’s mind were sure to emerge in American communities as a result of multiple crises from the 1940s forward until his death in 1970.  Scarry wonders whether emergency has made people “surrender power of resistance and our elementary forms of political responsibility” (7).  She defines the problem of emergency as follows – governments or individuals declare an emergency (eg, aftermath of tsunami or terrorist attack) and decide that action must be immediately taken.  Secondly, this action must be relatively quickly taken, perhaps without, as Scarry fears, full contemplation of the consequences.

The Aesop reference is to the tale of the drowning boy.  A boy bathes in the river but cannot swim.  As he is in danger of drowning, he calls out to a passerby for help.  While assisting the boy (in some versions before assisting) the passerby lectures the boy on the dangers of entering rivers with an inability to swim.  The boy pleads, “lecture me later, right now I need your help, so save me now.”  One interpretation of the fable is that lecture during a time of crisis is inappropriate.  Scarry argues that thinking in a time of crisis is entirely appropriate.

If societies prepare carefully for emergency situations, states Scarry, then dictatorial actions may be avoided.  The book offers several examples of how nations and people prepare for crises, (eg, CPR training, Swiss shelter building, or the protections in the United States Constitution against declaring war) and Scarry emphasizes that these actions should inspire us to take care in how to think rather than simply react in a crisis.  In conclusion, it should be pointed out, that much of Scarry’s book focuses on the dangers inherent in the powers of a nuclear armed country.  Americans live in a nation where nuclear power has made, for Scarry, the emergency of war, the declaration of war, and its aftermath, are all party to the actions of a few instead of the republic.  Is she successful in her argument?  Perhaps not fully, but the text is an interesting read, particularly in terms of some of the questions it asks about equity in an emergency.


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