When President Barack Obama the other day signed an executive order expanding sanctions against Iran and Syria, he was extending a declaration of national emergency we’ve been living under since the Clinton administration. And in a state of emergency, presidential authority is broader than in ordinary times. We shouldn’t be surprised. We live in the era of the permanent emergency.
Soon the House of Representatives may take up Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “emergency” bill to fix the awful mess left over from last year’s deficit reduction negotiations. Many members of Congress from both parties have introduced legislation that would either chip away at the looming automaticsequestrations set to go into effect if no budget agreement is reached, or undo them completely. What all these deals have in common is the word “emergency.” It’s in the title of each because it’s in the name of the law each is meant to amend, a statute going by the Orwellian name Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.
There are now some 153 bills with the word emergency in the title before the present Congress. Many include the word necessarily—they amend the 1985 Deficit Control Act, for example, or pertain to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Others do not: the National Forest Emergency Response Act (to “immediately implement hazardous fuels reduction projects” in the national forests), for example, or the Emergency Judicial Relief Act of 2012 (to expand the number of federal judges).
The states, too, like to get in on the action. Last year, when Arizona sought to rein in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church by enacting legislation banning protests within 300 feet of a funeral, the statute was widely described as “emergency legislation”—the “emergency” evidently being the nasty signs the church members carry.
The abuse of the term is yet another sign of the degeneration of our capacity for public debate. It’s high time to fight back against the casual debasement of a word of considerable power and, when used correctly, great beauty and utility.
The Oxford English Dictionary displays its usual impatience at the vulgarization of a perfectly good word. It offers, as the first definition, “The rising of a submerged body above the surface of water,” adding dryly, “now rare.” What it calls the “modern” use is: “a state of things unexpectedly arising, and urgently demanding immediate action.”
Our habit is to adopt the last half of the definition—“urgently demanding immediate action,” a phrase that fits the frenetic nature of the media circus that leads our politics on a leash. What we’re forgetting is the first half—“unexpectedly arising”—with its implication that what makes an emergency an emergency is precisely our inability to anticipate it.
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. In our effort to explain that some emergencies are more emergent than others, we wind up inventing such redundant neologisms as “dire emergency.” 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? My nominee for the silliest use of the word is the district council of Washington, D.C., which earlier this year adopted what it called emergency legislation to limit the cultivation of medical marijuana. The reason the problem arose was that the council had just two years earlier jumped on the pot-legalization bandwagon, never considering that people might grow the stuff. In short, the council was declaring an emergency to clean up its own mess.