Rapid Response

Interesting post from Ben Anderson at Berfois.  He suggests that ‘Over ten years since the advent of the war on terror it is no longer the “state of emergency” that dominates modern government’s response to emergencies. Organising for rapid response now occurs across all domains of life at a time when disparate events and conditions are grouped under the category of emergency.’  Here’s the punchline:

‘If rapid response has replaced the ‘state of emergency’ as the dominant paradigm for governing emergencies, how might those of us concerned with enhancing democratic life respond to rapid response? The critique of ‘state of emergency’ legislation is now a familiar one: in an emergency Government power is extended and liberal democracies reveal their authoritarianism. Unlike ‘state of emergency’ legislation, rapid response does not usually simply involve some form of temporary ‘suspension’ of normal rights. Quite the opposite: rapid response is the automation of exceptional but constitutional action through flexible, intersecting, protocols that govern how things should be done in response. Whilst the role of ‘state of emergency’ legislation in liberal democracies has been subject to considerable scrutiny in the post 9/11 world, there has been very little if any public reflection on the protocols that facilitate response (the only exception being post disaster inquiries and reports). This needs to change. For emergencies, and the response to emergencies, are a key occasion when lives are valued or devalued and democratic life, such as it functions today, is placed in question. How, then, can the protocols through which ‘rapid response’ is organised be opened up to public negotiation and contestation in advance of an emergency?’

Ben lists a series of’civil organisations and situations in which ‘rapid response’ is now invoked, but (as he knows very well) this often includes a set of militarized protocols.  John Morrissey has provided an excellent account of the origin of the United States’ unified combatant commands that span the globe – like CENTCOM – in which he emphasises the key role of Carter’s Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force that stood up in 1980 ‘to plan, jointly train, exercise and be prepared to deploy and employ designated forces in response to contingencies threatening US vital interests’ in the Gulf region.  Since then – in fact before then – speed and agility became the watchwords of advanced military operations, and not only internationally.  Earlier this year General Ray Odierno, the US Army’s Chief of Staff, outlined some of the changes that lie ahead in an essay in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2012), which included this passage:

‘…  the challenges in the United States itself remain daunting. Although the actions of our forces overseas have helped preclude more terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, the threat persists. The need for U.S. armed forces, and the army in particular, to provide planning, logistical, command-and-control, and equipment support to civil authorities in the event of natural disasters continues to be demonstrated regularly and is unlikely to diminish. And many security challenges in the Americas are transnational, including humanitarian crises, illicit trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. Army forces will continue to be ready to contribute to broader national efforts to counter those challenges at home, if needed. Our reserve component soldiers remain the bedrock of the army’s domestic response capability, but where appropriate we will also dedicate active-duty forces, especially those with niche skills and equipment, to provide civilian officials with a robust set of reliable and rapid response options.’

That last clause lit up the blogosphere with warnings of a threat to the constitution and of martial law.  I’m not persuaded by those alarms, but I do think that the line between the suspension of rights in a ‘state of emergency’ and the constitutionality of ‘rapid response’ is a dangerously pliable one.

And there are other modalities of rapid response that seek to confound state action and violence, often powered by new social media; here, for example, is a project of Amnesty International against forced evictions:

Note: For more of Ben’s work on emergencies (in the UK), see Ben Anderson and Peter Adey, ‘Governing events and life: “Emergency” in UK civil contingencies’, Political Geography 31 (1) (2012) 24-33 and Peter Adey and Ben Anderson, ‘Anticipating emergencies: technologies of preparedness and the matter of security’, Security dialogue 43 (2) (2012) 99-117.