From a lay person’s point  of view, a declaration of a state of public emergency may be a legal provision reserved for given times and circumstances of threatened or actual disruption of public order by natural disaster or criminal violence of extraordinary proportions. The situation is considered to be of such a nature as in turn requiring extraordinary legal and related measures for maintenance and/or the restoration of public order.

It is, by nature, an interim measure implemented and kept going only for as long as it is considered absolutely necessary. The reason for this is that it will necessitate, to varying degrees, the foregoing of certain taken-for-granted rights and entitlements for enforcement of actions and procedures necessary for bringing and keeping things under control.

In a democracy, these rights and entitlements are highly valued. They are considered as essential for truly meaningful living as human persons, fellow human beings and responsible citizenship. Yet they may be given up for another of such rights — security — which is necessary for their fulfilment in the interest of the common good. Such rights as liberty, choice, associations and privacy are invariably in the forefront of reckoning in such circumstances.

Moral Considerations

It is understandable that at every step of the way, from the consideration of the need for the declaration to its implementation, monitoring, evaluation and issues concerning its duration, legal issues and ramifications remain in central focus. Yet, by the very nature of all that is involved, moral considerations are integral to the whole process, particularly in a democracy with its own pretensions. Surely the law in such a setting would be predicated on certain moral principles. However, moral considerations are of a broader dimension and greater reaches, which is all the more important given the extraordinary  powers that are assumed in the situation, entitlements that stand to be surrendered and the human values that are at the heart of the whole matter. 

It is certainly not only a matter of the workings of systems and structures, rules and regulations, schemes and plans, statistics and percentages that are involved. The meaning and significance of human life which go beyond the ensuring of just physical existence, important as this is, has to do ultimately with the meaning, worth, significance and dignity of human persons, the understanding and goal of human in community and the purpose of life individually and collectively. This includes those who are perceived to be immediate beneficiaries of the state of public emergency, those who manage and enforce it and those considered to be enemies and disrupters of good order.

Moral considerations are meant to humanize the whole process and reinforce those guiding principles such as justice, righteousness, respect, love and wisdom which are necessary for the common good which is the underlying goal of the order. These are values are necessary for the social cohesions that make for a responsible, sustainable social order.

Self-conscious moral considerations give priority to the preservation of human dignity, which all human beings share with equality. Actions that attack, demean and diminish this in any enforcement of public order would hardly rise above that of those who are being restrained or punished. They reinforce bitterness and resentment and leave an unhealed community, even in the face of achieved calmness, which can only be for a while. So all interaction must be aimed at restoration or affirmation of human dignity, not just amelioration of physical disadvantages at a basic or subsistence level.

Choice and Compulsion

The extraordinary power to impose limitation on certain rights and entitlements should not eliminate the necessity of moral suasion that respects the rights that are being limited and seeks to gain voluntary consent as much as possible. People who are morally aware and encouraged will own the limitations, feel part of efforts being made and see them as a contribution to the common good.

The right to be related to in such a manner stands alongside the right being ceded in the process. Any kind of arrogant attitude, assuming that people ought to know that it is for their own good; that there is no need to remain in dialogue with them; or indicating that there is tremendous value in foregoing their legal entitlement in the given situation, will amount to a kind of disrespect with the potential to negate appreciation of what is being done. The long-term impact of this will not help the prospect of future good order based on wholesomeness of community life.

The matter is even worse if people are given the impression that it is because of their considered lower social status or their considered inferiority in one way or another why they are not reasoned with, and why they are subject to more rigorous imposition and drastic compulsion than others. This will not help the present project and any possible future declaration. Tough talk that rules out moral suasion adds its own tension to an already tense situation. There is something self-defeating here.

Means and End

The state of public emergency is a means to achieve the maintenance and restoration of good order in defined situations that warrant it as an extraordinary measure to achieve the stated end. As such, there are two particular dangers that are attendant upon it because of its very nature. It is meant and expected to achieve positive results as quickly as possible, indeed in the shortest possible time.

In view of this, there is always the temptation to resort to pragmatic suspension of the moral and operate on the very edges of the law to the extent that it may be claimed that nothing illegal was done; but surely excesses are practised that exceed moral boundaries, in terms of impact on the human person or on groups of human persons.

Life-diminishing and demeaning actions are pursued to get positive results as quickly as possible on the basis of the end justifies the means. In the name of what is practical and realistic in the given circumstances, rights and entitlements are undermined beyond what is necessary. This is under the urge to display quick results and the effectiveness of the state of emergency. This again is often done to those who are less able to defend themselves or least likely to get a hearing if or when such things are done. There is always need to appeal to moral sensibilities which will indicate that the use of means made unworthy by its practice will sooner or later more severely corrupt the end achieved. Principles sacrificed to achieve it will not be effectively able to defend it. The improved condition will be so tainted that it will not truly be appreciated for what it is supposed to be.

The other danger is that success claimed for the public state of emergency may be considered so good within the times set, it may seek to make it end up seeming more effective than it really is on an overall and necessary basis such that a prolonged status is sought for it. This is especially so if success is measured on a narrow basis and supported by ambiguous statistics. The danger inherent in this is that the means may be transformed into the end tacitly with liberty permanently abrogated in the name of security or on a larger basis than necessary. This will devalue certain rights and entitlements that are critically necessary for the attainment of wholesome living, inclusive of the opportunity for the fulfilment of true human potential which remains dependent on the need to express, exercise and experience such rights and entitlements that are ceded but not for an unnecessarily long time in the given situation.

The means cannot become the end without a serious possibility of the condition of a National Security State emerging — with the permanent suspension of rights, often of some more than others, especially ofthose who have always been the disadvantaged or the least concerned about in actuality over time. This is not something to be scoffed at when security is made the highest good by devaluing true liberty in the process. This is so while rhetorical commitment is still being made to true liberty as excuses are being made for its ongoing demotion to security.

A state of public emergency is of such a nature, that in a democracy, where values that put the dignity and worth of the human person are at the centre, it must be something that the constituted authorities must always be preparing for all times. This will mean especially holding necessary resources in reserve and always reviewing their adequacy. It will involve training and equipping those who will be first responders and enforcers on an ongoing basis. These must be sufficient in numbers so that when displayed in what will, of necessity, be a stressful situation, the risk of being overburdened and overstressed will be greatly reduced. It also means that their deployment will not create vulnerability otherwise.

It is not too much to hope that training will not be confined to tactical and strategic matters but will include matters of human values, care, concern and compassion which are of highest importance in a situation where it might be considered excusable to ignore them. To neglect them, however, will almost certainly have the effect of creating longer term problems and mistrust, resentment and disrespect for the enforcers and authorities, which will not help towards the maintenance of good order that is dependent on the trustful and respectful relations between all concerned.

A matter of grave concern is that under-preparation and lack of resources, including sufficient numbers of personnel to manage and carry out the necessary operations, will make the enforcers of the law unintended victims in the whole operation. As they stand between the community and the sources and cause of conflict in the situation, they will be targets, bearers of the immediate and overwhelming stress. They will be pressed to resort to excesses, abuse and violations of their own basic code of conduct for their own survival or presumably so.

Their own physical and emotional conditions under the stress contributed to by their being under-resourced makes them victims in an unfair way of a situation that they are expected to correct. As victims in such a way they are open to become victimizers in a way that is out of line with the whole process they are meant to manage and enforce. Both directly and indirectly their families become bearers of the burden. They, too, are unintended victims.

States of public emergency are things that we must be prepared for while at the same time everything must be done to prevent them becoming a necessity. We must give priority to developing a truly just order where every member of our society is afforded opportunity to access available resources and services that will make for a life in keeping with basic human dignity. This is a life that will honour the true value of a human being, not made the subject of demeaning by the deprivation of such basic things as health, education, housing, welfare and social relations. It will be without demeaning discriminations based on race, colour of the skin, gender, class or disabilities.

A state of emergency will not aim at restoring things to what they were prior to it, but will prompt the desire and effort to create conditions better than they were. This in itself will reduce the chance of the necessity of declaring one at least in the near future and for the same reasons.

  • Submitted by the Public Theology Forum, a group of Caribbean theologians and pastors who meet to reflect pastorally and theologically on matters in the public domain. They include Garnett Roper (convenor), Burchell Taylor, Richmond Nelson ,Devon Dick, Stanley Clark, Stratrel Lowe, Ana Perkins, Doreen Winter Marjorie Lewis Oral Thomas, Howard Gregory Robert Thompson, Karl Johnson, Gary Harriot, Adinhair Jones, Nicholas Smith, Richard Beckford, Glenroy Lalor, Garth Minott, et al.  The Late Rev Byron Chambers was the previous convenor

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