Thinking in an emergency: The principles of mutual protection

March 15, 2011

Excerpted from Thinking in an Emergency, the inaugural book in the Amnesty International Global Ethics Series by Elaine Scarry.

Photograph by flickr user michaelwhays, Creative Commons licenses

As a child growing up in the high hills of South India, Rae Langton used to walk to school side by side with a friend. So did all the other children. They could be seen each day moving two by two along the pathways in a long undulating line, chattering, laughing, holding hands. The children called it walking “in croq” because collectively they moved like a crocodile toward their shared destination.

Overnight this practice changed. Walking in croq was suddenly prohibited. The flow of schoolchildren could still be seen each day as they made their way across the terraced hillside, but now they moved in single file or in atomized clusters of two or three.

Walking two by two in a line was construed to be a form of assembly, and the right of assembly—as well as India’s other fundamental rights—had been suspended as of midnight, June 25, 1975. The mountain town of Ooty is 2,000 kilometers from the seat of government in Delhi, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s act had entered directly into the texture of the schoolchildren’s lives. The children of this town were not privy to the severe abuses and injuries that would now take place: the cutting of electricity to opposition newspapers, the imposition of severe censorship once the electricity was restored, the detaining of thousands of persons without charge and without release of their names, the involuntary sterilization of many who were detained. But despite their separation from the site of grave injury, the children had a physical sign in their environment that some profound change had just come about.

The abridging of rights and laws more often lacks any sensory manifestation. Persons who are not themselves directly injured often do not even know that any substantive change in the laws has taken place. If at the moment that President George W. Bush secretly authorized torture the residents of the United States had been required to begin walking in single file, the enormity of the legal change might have been easier to grasp. They would be concretely aware that their shared legal universe had changed, and perhaps they would suspect that somewhere somebody else might be paying a heavy price for the change.

What about the profound legal change that comes about once a country acquires nuclear weapons that allow the executive of that country to kill many millions of people in a foreign land? If at the moment the change was initiated the residents of that country had been henceforth required to walk backward wherever they went, they would be steadily aware that a major alteration had occurred. The sustained discomfort of walking backward would surely trouble them on their own behalf. It would almost as surely prompt them to worry about the enormity of the far-heavier price that some unseen population might eventually pay for the mysterious change.

It is not the case that any of the eight nuclear nations have required their populations to walk backward physically, even though that is precisely what those populations have been asked to do legally, morally, and spiritually. Nuclear weapons—their possession, threatened use, or use—reenact on a vast scale the structural features of torture. Both torture and nuclear weapons inflict their injuries without permitting any form of self-defense; both inflict their injuries without obtaining any authorization from their own legislatures or populations; both starkly nullify even the most minimal requirements of a contractual society; both destroy the foundational concept of law.

Thinking in an Emergency is a reminder of what in the nuclear age we sometimes seem to have forgotten: that we have both the responsibility and the ability to protect one another, both within the boundaries of our own nations and across national boundaries. Once we hold in front of our eyes the landscape of actual emergencies—as the central chapter of this book asks us to do—we can recognize the deep principles of mutual protection that consistently appear, whether in the act of a midwife in Zambia trying to save a newborn with CPR, a commune in Saskatchewan building a raft to rescue stranded villagers, or an entire national population in Switzerland working in concert to uphold their commitment to “equality of survival.” We can and ordinarily do retain our ability both to think and to act in emergencies, and should not be misled by governments into believing that the speed of modern life requires that populations step aside and stop thinking while larger and larger arsenals are accumulated whose only purpose is to injure.

We need to turn to this work of mutual protection. If we are late in beginning, we are not yet too late.


Photograph by flickr user michaelwhays used under Creative Commons licenses.

Excerpted from Thinking in an Emergency © Copyright 2011 by Elaine Scarry. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.

Elaine Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University. In 2000 she received the Truman Capote Award for her writing. In 2005 Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines placed her among the world’s one hundred leading public intellectuals.

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