” And when everything is an emergency, everything requires extraordinary means of solution.”

May 21st, 2012

No doubt some of these are fine bills. Others are probably awful. What they have in common is the word emergency. It is in the title of each because it is in the title of the law each is meant to amend, a statute going by the Orwellian title Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

At this writing, there are 153 bills with the word emergency in their title in Congress. To be sure, many of them include the word necessarily; they amend the aforementioned Deficit Control Act, for example, or pertain to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Others do not: the National Forest Emergency Response Act (which would “immediately implement hazardous fuels reduction projects” in national forests), for example, or the Emergency Judicial Relief Act of 2012 (which would expand the number of federal judges). . . .

The abuse of the term is yet another sign of the degeneration of our capacity for public debate. Instead of advocating our positions, we tend more and more to label them, and emergency is about as alarming a label as we are able to invent.

Without harnessing the power of words to construct actual arguments, however, we may find it difficult to draw distinctions and set priorities. That is why it is high time to fight back against the casual debasement of a word of considerable power and, when it’s used correctly, great beauty and utility.


We can see here the continuity with the original definition, “rising of a submerged body,” because the notion of both forms of emergency is that we had no idea what was about to occur. We are sailing along gaily in the ship of state when, suddenly, a behemoth emerging from the ocean depths blocks our course. We could not have imagined such a horrible beast in our path, and now we face an emergency decision about whether to circumvent it, try to slay it, or bribe it with most-favored-nation status.

By contrast, most of what we label “emergencies” are predictable. They are important. They are often urgent. They may even be dire. But they are not, strictly speaking, emergencies.

When we grant them all the same label, we diminish the term’s power. In our effort to explain that some emergencies are more emergent than others, we wind up inventing such redundant neologisms as dire emergency.

In her book Thinking in an Emergency, Elaine Scarry warns that governments overuse the word emergency to bypass individual rights and procedural protections. Upon the proclamation of an emergency, she suggests, we should be on our guard. Is what we are enduring really so unprecedented that traditional restraints on state power should be swept aside? Or are those who rule simply choosing the word to ease passage of their agenda?

Op-Ed from Stephen Carter, courtesy of SR.