Daniel W. Drezner

Is New York preparing for the zombie apocalypse?

Is New York preparing for the zombie apocalypse?

In Theories of International Politics and Zombies, I noted that "one can only speculate" what great power governments were doing to prepare for the contingency of an attack of the undead.  One could argue that the absence of any mention of zombies in the Wikileaks cables suggests that no planning has taken place — but one would assume that scenarios involving the undead would be classified as Top Secret or higher. 

Courtesy of the New York Times’ William Glaberson, however, we now know that the State of New York is thinking seriously about this problem:

Major disasters like terrorist attacks and mass epidemics raise confounding issues for rescuers, doctors and government officials. They also pose bewildering legal questions, including some that may be painful to consider, like how the courts would decide who gets life-saving medicine if there are more victims than supplies.

But courts, like fire departments and homicide detectives, exist in part for gruesome what-ifs. So this month, an official state legal manual was published in New York to serve as a guide for judges and lawyers who could face grim questions in another terrorist attack, a major radiological or chemical contamination or a widespread epidemic.

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.

Uh-huh… this is for "radiological" or "chemical" contaminations.  Ok.  Right.  Wake up and smell the rotting corpses of the undead, people!!!!!

Seriously, fhe foreword of the New York State Public Health Legal Manual (.pdf) opens with the following explanation/justification: 


In today’s world, we face many natural and man-made catastrophic threats, including the very real possibility of a global influenza outbreak or other public health emergency that could infect millions of people. While it is impossible to predict the timing or severity of the next public health emergency, our government has a responsibility to anticipate and prepare for such events. An important element of this planning process is advance coordination between public health authorities and our judicial and legal systems. The major actors in any public health crisis must understand the governing laws ahead of time, and must know what their respective legal roles and responsibilities are. What is the scope of the government’s emergency and police powers? When may these be invoked, and by which officials? What are the rights of people who may be quarantined or isolated by government and public health officials?

These questions must be researched and answered now-not in the midst of an emergency-so that the responsible authorities have a readymade resource to help them make quick, effective decisions that protect the public interest.

Are planning documents like this useful?  Yes and no.  On the one hand, this kind of thing is a classic example of what Lee Clarke would refer to as a "fantasy document."  In Mission Improbable:  Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Clarke argued that plans like these have little chance of success, because an actual crisis contains too much randomness to plan out in advance.  They serve primarily as a way for the state to soothe the the public that Someone Is In Charge and will provide control, order, and stability.  Similarly, Anthony Cordesman argued in October 2001 that pre-crisis government efforts to handle this kind of emergency are likely to disintegrate once the actual crisis emerges. 

On the other hand, as many contributors argued in Avoiding Trivia, even if the plans themselves never work out, the effort to plan can be useful both for crisis and non-crisis situations.  This kind of exercise forces bureaucrats and officials to think about what standard operatijngf procedures won’t be so standard in a post-disaster environment.  It also serves as a form of mental aerobics to prepare to the truly unknown unknowns. 

So, on the one hand, kudos to the New York State legal community for thinking about these questions.  On the other hand, I doubt that things will go according to plan.  Plus, I’m really curious to hear whether they think habeas corpus applies to the living dead.