Thinking about a legal framework for a potential apocalypse

This story about the State of New York thinking about the legal challenges of an apocalyptic event might cause one to wonder: why are they spending time with this when there are other pressing concerns? Here is a description of some of the issues that could arise should an apocalypse occur:

Quarantines. The closing of businesses. Mass evacuations. Warrantless searches of homes. The slaughter of infected animals and the seizing of property. When laws can be suspended and whether infectious people can be isolated against their will or subjected to mandatory treatment. It is all there, in dry legalese, in the manual, published by the state court system and the state bar association.

The most startling legal realities are handled with lawyerly understatement. It notes that the government has broad power to declare a state of emergency. “Once having done so,” it continues, “local authorities may establish curfews, quarantine wide areas, close businesses, restrict public assemblies and, under certain circumstances, suspend local ordinances.”…

“It is a very grim read,” Mr. Younkins said. “This is for potentially very grim situations in which difficult decisions have to be made.”…

The manual provides a catalog of potential terrorism nightmares, like smallpox, anthrax or botulism episodes. It notes that courts have recognized far more rights over the past century or so than existed at the time of Typhoid Mary’s troubles. It details procedures for assuring that people affected by emergency rules get hearings and lawyers. It mentions that in the event of an attack, officials can control traffic, communications and utilities. If they expect an attack, it says, they can compel mass evacuations.

But the guide also presents a sober rendition of what the realities might be in dire times. The suspension of laws, it says, is subject to constitutional rights. But then it adds, “This should not prove to be an obstacle, because federal and state constitutional restraints permit expeditious actions in emergency situations.”

Isn’t it better that authorities are doing some thinking about these situations now rather than simply reacting if something major happens? This reminds me of Nasim Taleb’s book The Black Swan where he argues that a problem we face as a society is that we don’t consider the odd things that could, and still do (even if it is rarely), happen. Taleb suggests we tend to extrapolate from past historical events but this is a poor predictor of future happenings.

Depending on the size or scope of the problem, it may be that government is limited or even unable to respond. Then we would have a landscape painted by numerous books and movies of the last few decades where every person has to simply find a way to survive. But even a limited and effective government response would be better than no response.

It would be interesting to know how much time has been spent putting together this manual.

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