Preparing for the Next Emergency
This essay describes the emergence and extension of “preparedness” as a form of rationality for approaching questions of domestic security in the United States. Preparedness provides security experts with a way of grasping uncertain future events and bringing them into a space of present intervention. An analysis of this form of rationality helps to address a puzzling aspect of statebased security practices in the contemporary United States: how a series of seemingly disparate types of events — ranging from terrorist attacks, to hurricanes and earthquakes, to epidemics — have been brought into the same framework of “security threats.” More broadly, such an analysis allows us to address the question, what is the logic through which potential dangers to collective life are being taken up as political problems?
In order to show what is distinctive about preparedness, this essay begins by comparing it to a different form of security rationality: insurance. Preparedness becomes an especially salient approach to perceived threats when they reach the limits of a rationality of insurance. These are threats that are not manageable through techniques of probabilistic calculation: preparedness typically approaches events whose probability is not calculable but whose consequences could be catastrophic. The essay then traces the history of preparedness as a rationality of domestic security, beginning in the early period of the Cold War and following it to its current articulation in the Department of Homeland Security. The analysis is framed by a discussion of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which revealed both the centrality of preparedness to the contemporary politics of security and its limitations as an approach to catastrophic threats.
We Are Not Prepared
One evening the week after Hurricane Katrina struck, the intrepid news anchor Anderson Cooper was featured on the Charlie Rose Show. Cooper was still on the scene in New Orleans, the inundated city in the background and a look of harried concern on his face. He told Rose that he had no intention of returning to his comfortable life in New York City any time soon. Cooper had been among the reporters to challenge official accounts that hurricane relief operations were functioning smoothly, based on the stark contradiction between disturbing images on the ground and governmental claims of a competent response effort. He seemed shocked and dismayed by what he had seen in New Orleans, but was also moved, even transformed, by his role as witness to domestic catastrophe. He had covered disasters in Somalia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, he said, but never expected to see images like these in the United States: widespread looting, hungry refugees, corpses left on the street to decompose. Toward the end of the interview, Rose asked him what he had learned from the event. Cooper paused, reflected for a moment, and then answered: “We are not as ready as we can be.”
Insofar as the hurricane and its aftermath could be said to have had a shared lesson, it was this: we are not prepared — whether for another major natural disaster, a chemical or biological attack, an epidemic, or some other type of emergency. This lesson has structured political response to the hurricane in terms of certain kinds of discussions and not others. This is one reason why Katrina has arguably failed to be a politically transformative event, despite widespread expressions of outrage at the role of structural inequality in making certain citizens vulnerable to catastrophe. Instead, the event has intensified and redirected processes that were already under way. To see this, it is necessary to analyze the development of preparedness as a guiding logic for domestic security in the United States.
Preparedness provides a way of understanding and intervening in an uncertain, potentially catastrophic future.1 Unlike other issues that were initially raised by the hurricane and its aftermath, such as racial inequality, concentrated urban poverty, the social isolation of the elderly, or the short-sightedness of environmental planning, the demand for preparedness is a matter that enjoys widespread political agreement on the necessity of governmental intervention. In other words, in the norm of preparedness, we find a shared sense of what collective security problems involve today. The need to be prepared is not in question; what can be a source of dispute is, rather, how to prepare and what we need to prepare for.
In the aftermath of Katrina, it was common to see comparisons made between the failed governmental response to the hurricane and the more successful response to the attacks of September 11. To an observer a decade before, it might have been surprising that a natural disaster and a terrorist attack would be considered part of the same problematic. And the image, three weeks after Katrina struck, of George W. Bush flying to the headquarters of USNORTHCOM — a military installation designed for use in national security crises — to follow the progress of Hurricane Rita as it hurtled toward Texas might have been even more perplexing. The aftermath of Katrina also pointed forward to other possible emergencies, such as a novel and deadly infectious disease. In announcing its $7.1 billion pandemic preparedness program the following month, the Bush administration declared avian flu an urgent matter of national security.2 This grouping of various types of possible catastrophe under a shared rubric of “security threats” is exemplary of the rationality of preparedness. Preparedness marks out a limited but agreed-upon terrain for the management of collective life. Its techniques focus on a certain set of possible events, operating to bring them into the present as potential future catastrophes that point to current vulnerabilities.
The Probabilistic Future: Insurance
In its mode of future orientation and in its way of approaching threats, preparedness can be usefully contrasted with another form of security rationality — insurance. As Francois Ewald points out, insurance is an “abstract technology” that can take concrete form in a variety of institutions, including mutual associations, private insurance firms, and state-based social welfare agencies. It is a means of distributing risk. Here the term risk does not refer to a danger or peril, Ewald specifies, but rather to a “specific mode of treatment of certain events capable of happening to a group of individuals.”3 This treatment involves, first, tracking the occurrence of such events over time across a population and, second, applying probabilistic techniques to gauge the likelihood of a given event occurring over a given period of time. Insurance is thus a way of reordering reality: what had been exceptional events that disrupted the normal order become predictable occurrences.
In this way, insurance takes up certain kinds of external dangers and transforms them into manageable risks. The events that insurance typically takes up are dangers of relatively limited scope and statistically regular occurrence: illness, injury, accident, and fire. When taken individually, such events may appear as contingent misfortunes, but when their occurrence is plotted over a population, they show a normal rate of incidence. Knowledge of this rate, gained through carefully plotted actuarial tables, makes it possible to rationally distribute risk. Thus, insurance removes accidents and other misfortunes from a moral-legal domain of personal responsibility and places them in a technical frame of calculability.
As an abstract technology, insurance can be linked to diverse political objectives. Beginning in the nineteenth century, insurance was harnessed to a politics of solidarity in the development of state-based social welfare programs — what can be called “population security.” Population security aims to foster the health and well-being of human beings understood as members of a national population. It works to collectivize individual risk — of illness, accident, or infirmity. Paul Rabinow describes the distinctiveness of this approach to future threats: “A security apparatus takes up the problem of how to manage an indefinite series of elements that are in motion. This motion is understood within a logic of probable events.”4 Through calculation of the rates of such events across populations over an extended period, population security seeks regularities, such as birth and death rates, illness prevalence, and the occurrence of accidents. Planners can then target intervention into the social milieu that will improve collective well-being.5 Examples of population security mechanisms include mass vaccination, urban water and sewage systems, guaranteed pensions, and health and safety regulations.
As analysts of the European welfare state have argued, this “social” form of security was based on the premise that technical rationality would be increasingly capable of managing collective risk.6 By the mid-twentieth century, such risk management had taken on a relatively stable form in the West in the various forms of collective security provision associated with the welfare state. Developments in science and technology — such as food production or industrial hazard mitigation — promised to further improve and stabilize the health and well-being of the population. Toward the end of the century, however, this stability began to break down, and many of the population security mechanisms associated with social welfare either were dispersed outside of the state or were allowed to fall into disrepair.
Meanwhile, another challenge to the capacity of insurance mechanisms to provide adequate security came from the emergence of novel threats. A series of environmental and health hazards appeared whose scale and incalculability seemed to push them beyond the scope of insurability. In some cases, these new vulnerabilities were generated by the extent, power, and uncontrollability of the life-supporting systems that had been developed in the context of population security. These new hazards were characterized by their unpredictability and by their catastrophic potential.
End of Excerpt | Access Full Version
The research on which this essay is based is part of a collaborative project on contemporary security expertise conducted under the auspices of the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory. Many of the ideas in the essay developed in conversation with the co-principal investigators on this project, Stephen J. Collier and Paul Rabinow. It has also benefited from comments by members of the 2005 – 6 International Center for Advanced Studies seminar at New York University, led by Tim Mitchell, as well as the suggestions of Craig Calhoun, Nils Gilman, Gregoire Mallard, and Christopher Otter.
- Stephen J. Collier, Andrew Lakoff, and Paul Rabinow, “Biosecurity: Towards an Anthropology of the Contemporary,” Anthropology Today 20, no. 5 (2004): 3 – 7.
- See Monica Schoch-Spana, “Post-Katrina, Pre-Pandemic America,” Anthropology News, January 2006, 32.
- Francois Ewald, “Insurance and Risk,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 199.
- Paul Rabinow, “Diffusion of the Human Thing: Virtual Virulence, Preparedness, Dignity,” (working paper, Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory, 2005), anthropos-lab .net/documents. See also Michel Foucault, Sécurité, Territoire, Population: Cours au Collège de France (1977 – 1978), ed. M. Sennelart (Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2004).
- As Foucault writes, “Security mechanisms have to be installed around the random element inherent in a population of living beings so as to optimize a state of life.” “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975 – 76, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 246.
- Francois Ewald, “The Return of Descartes’s Malicious Demon: An Outline of the Philosophy of Precaution,” in Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility, ed. Tom Baker and Jonathan Simon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 273 – 301; Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998). Scenarios and simulationsEarly warning systemsStockpiling of relief suppliesPlans for coordinating response among diverse entitiesCrisis communications systemsMetrics for readiness assessment