On Not Returning to Normal

Political theorists, lawyers and policy-makers sometimes assume that responses to emergency should — morally should — aim at a speedy return to a “normal” that predated the emergency. This is implicit in the metaphor of resilience often used by officials for emergency response. “Resilience” suggests that the preferred aftermath of an emergency is quickly regaining one’s former shape, bouncing back. Presumably it is possible to bounce back with a few permanent bumps or scars, but at the limit we might speak of an invisible mending ideal of emergency response: when the response is genuinely successful, the effects of the emergency entirely disappear: before and after are indistinguishable. 

The first thing to be said about the invisible mending model is that it is highly ambitious, even as a model of ideal emergency response. We normally expect firemen to put out the house fire. Replacing what is charred is not their responsibility. Neither is making the house habitable. In the same way, an emergency medical response is not supposed on its own to restore people to full functioning or health. The governing norm is that of removing or reducing the threat to life and limb. The larger aim of returning to normal involves a much larger set of agents than those who confront the emergency, and a much greater length of time.  Such was the case, as we now know, in the days that followed the attacks of Sept. 11. The efforts of the immediate responders to this grave emergency eliminated dangers and saved lives, but did not, could not, effect the complete and invisible mending that the language often used to describe their efforts implied.

Invisible mending may be a bad ideal of emergency response for two further reasons. First, the status quo ante — the way things were before — may be an emergency waiting to happen. Rebuilding water-damaged housing on a flood plain only invites more water damage. Instead of restoring things to their former condition, it is at least arguable that emergency response should usher in discontinuity. Perhaps people living in highly vulnerable flood plains have to be encouraged to move; or perhaps new forms of flood-resistant construction have to be developed.

The second reason why emergency response can be geared to the wrong ideal when it aims at invisible mending is that restoration can serve to continue a morally questionable status quo ante. Even when returning  to normal after a crisis does not return people to an emergency waiting to happen, it can return them to a “normal” that is unacceptable in other ways. The peace process in Northern Ireland has made violent paramilitary activity, including bombing, largely a thing of the past. This marks a return to a normality of non-violence that has not been seen for decades.  But there are many urban areas where high walls built during the Troubles separate loyalists from nationalists. The walls can be torn down. But extreme sectarian ill-feeling will go on: that is a continuity that the peace process has not broken.

Aiming simply to return to a former normality can have an unwelcome complacency about it, sometimes a defiant complacency. A determination to go on exactly as before —just to spite an enemy or attacker or simply a critic — is a recognizable human response to attack, enmity or criticism. Perhaps it also displays a kind of resilience. But unless continuity has a significant value of its own, the determination to go on exactly as before may have little to be said for it. Emergencies may better be seen as occasions for fresh starts and rethinking. Because they take life and make death vivid for those who survive emergencies, they properly prompt people to appraise lives that are nearly cut short. 

Consider the following clichéd vignette. Bloggs, a ruthless businessman, spends 20 years, seven days a week, clinching deals. He is run down, eats too much, drinks too much. This leads to a heart attack. He takes this heart-attack as a wake-up call. The teenage children he has neglected, his wife; his dog — all of these figures appear in a new light. He decides to lead a new sort of life that gives them the attention and appreciation they deserve. The heart attack leads Bloggs to this decision, let’s say, and not the decision to lead his old business life on a new sort of diet. The heart attack may have been caused by the bad diet, and it is open to interpretation as a wake-up call about eating and drinking. But it is naturally seized upon as an opportunity to take stock more generally and change a way of life.

A public emergency can be seized upon in the same way, even if one is not at its sharp end. This is how it was with September 11. Through the live television coverage the whole world was there. Many viewers throughout the world identified strongly with the victims; so that their deaths reminded us of our mortality, and  prompted us to take stock. To this extent we took September 11 as a wake-up call.  We opened our minds to questions of how we could live better.

There are philosophers such as Ted Honderich who think that the responsibility Westerners had before September 11 for not not living better lives by alleviating global inequalities contributed to the overall  responsibility for  the September 11  attack. Honderich wrote in “After the Terror” in 2003: “[T]he atrocity at the Twin Towers did have a human necessary condition in what preceded it: our deadly treatment of those outside our circle of comfort, those with the bad lives. Without that deadly treatment by us, the atrocity of the Twin Towers would not have happened.”

But this is a puzzling thing to think.  It may be true that the rich in the world should wake up to the fact that they can do much more for the poor of the world. It may be true that the earlier this is done the better. It may be true that there was an opportunity to start on this task on September 12 2001, as opposed to September 12 2003. It may therefore be true that people should have started on this task on September 12 2001. What does not seem to be true is that they should have started to do this because of the reasons for the September 11 attack. There is no reason to think that the Al-Qaeda operatives who flew the airplanes, or their masters, had any agenda with respect to global inequality. And it is hard to understand an attack on the Twin Towers or Pentagon as a means of reducing inequality. This crucial and fairly obvious point is fatal for Honderich’s way of arguing.

September 11 caused many people to take stock of their lives, and many governments to reappraise their priorities in foreign policy. Not every such reappraisal has led to better lives or better policies. But there is something important about the opportunity that emergency offers for not going on in the same old way. For us to break from our past because of an emergency is not at all for us to be broken by an emergency.


Tom Sorell is John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics and director of the Center for the Study of Global Ethics at Birmingham University. He is the author of several philosophical works, including “Moral Theory and Anomaly” (1999), and is currently working on a book on the moral and political theory of emergencies.


Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/on-not-returning-to-normal/