FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Lockdown Society Goes Primetime

by MICHAEL SCHWALBE

“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 MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com.

 

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe@nc.rr.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Chris Welzenbach
The Forgotten Sneak Attack
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Yoav Litvin
Resist or Conform: Lessons in Fortitude and Weakness From the Israeli Left
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Martha Durkee-Neuman
Millennial Organizers Want to See An Intersectional Understanding Of Gun Violence
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Pierre Labossiere – Margaret Prescod
Human Rights and Alternative Media Delegation Report on Haiti’s Elections
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail