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The Lockdown Society Goes Primetime


“Lockdown” escaped prison long ago.  A Google Ngram chart shows the word first popping up in books in the mid-1960s but gaining little currency until around 1990, at which time its frequency soars.  The Ngram chart nearly mirrors a chart of the explosive growth in the U.S. prison population, though with a ten-year lag.  A decade after the prison population began to boom in 1980, “lockdown” began a boom of its own.

I was first affronted by this pricksome word a couple years ago when our campus facilities manager sent an e-mail informing university employees about the “holiday lockdown schedule.”  This was meant to tell us which buildings would require a key for entry during the semester break.  I e-mailed back to say that since a university is not a prison and its employees are not inmates, the word “lockdown” was inappropriate.  He did not reply.

The word is now in common use.  We know what it means when headlines tell us that a school is “on lockdown.”  (Anyone who doesn’t know can Google and find definitions, along with helpful tips about how to behave when one is locked down.)  Most recently we learned, as Boston police hunted for alleged bomber Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, that whole cities can be locked down.

I am troubled by what “lockdown” connotes and what is normalized by its wide use.  When I hear that authorities have locked down a school, a workplace, a transit system, a cell phone network, or a city, the subtext seems unmistakable: We are now in control.  Listen carefully and do as you are told.  What I hear is the warden saying that communication will flow in one direction only, and that silence and obedience are the only options.

I suspect that part of the appeal of “lockdown” to authorities who issue orders stems precisely from its semantic ties to the world of prison.  In that world, the word is meant to imply not only We are now in control, but Never forget that we are always in control, you pathetic scum.  Perhaps this is what makes the word so chilling.  It reflects and affirms a dominator mentality that holds citizens in the same contempt as inmates.

The Wikipedia entry for “lockdown” defines it as “an emergency protocol to prevent people or information from escaping.”  I was surprised to see information included in that definition.  But if a lockdown is understood to be about establishing control and inducing docility, it makes sense that information too would be locked down.  The likelihood of dissent is greatly reduced if people can be kept in the dark about what’s going on and kept from talking to others.

Every imposition of a lockdown and every casual use of the word to describe such an event further accustoms us to being locked down.  “This is normal,” we come to think.  So when a neighborhood or a city is declared to be on lockdown and movement and assembly are restricted, when cell phone networks are unplugged and communication impeded, when homes are entered and searched like prison cells, there is little protest.  The First and Fourth Amendments are effectively suspended, and this is seen as unremarkable.

Those who command police forces and armies naturally will be drawn to the theory and practice of lockdowns.  It would be naive to expect otherwise; the power to dominate begs for occasional exercise.  But one might hope for something better than complacency from a people who profess to love freedom.  Mass acceptance of being locked down is more worrisome than the predictable authoritarian impulse to use the tactic.

Part of normalizing lockdowns is repeating the message that they are for our own safety.  There might indeed be good reasons for locking the doors of a school, under certain conditions of threat.  But we should always be skeptical of claims by authorities who presume to restrict liberty for our own good.  We should likewise always be vigilant against the creeping extension of lockdowns beyond emergency situations and beyond what is absolutely necessary to ensure the protection of life and health.

Although casual use of the word “lockdown” helps to normalize the practice, in the end the problem is not lexical but political, a matter of how power is distributed.  Were this a more democratic society, the headlines might read: PENTAGON LOCKED DOWN TO STOP WASTE AND DESTRUCTION; WALL STREET LOCKED DOWN TO STOP FRAUD BY FINANCE CAPITALISTS; CONGRESS LOCKED DOWN TO STOP POLITICAL CORRUPTION.  Dramatic steps, yes.  But we are under conditions of threat.  And it would be for our own self-determined good.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.  He can be reached at


Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at

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