Evidence in things not yet felt

In a recent article, Alison Howell asks us to rethink militarization as a useful descriptor or analytic of contemporary politics. Specifically, Howell suggests that “it is not that ‘war’ is encroaching on ‘peace,’ and it is not that ‘the military’ is trespassing on the ‘civilian.’ Rather, ‘martial politics’ are fundamental to the constitution and continued production of liberal democracies such as the US… This is not directed equally at all parts of the population but targets those who are constituted as a threat to the nation’s strength or civil order” (129-130).

This is something I, too, have been grappling with on this project: the fact that there is no demilitarized place to return to when it comes to public health, that war-like ideas and practices have been central — if not constitutive — to its formation, institutionalization and professionalization. I’m also reminded of an Argentinian colleague who read an earlier version of The Fever Archive that highlighted the militarization and securitization of responses to public health emergencies. She remarked, “It never occurred to me that health could NOT be militarized. The military part is taken for granted!”

Beyond the martial politics, I’ve also been trying to explain and think through the ‘investigative’ and ‘intelligence-gathering’ that is also part and parcel of the CDC’s practices (which, in this chapter, is a proxy for what I’m calling ‘US public health.’) These two dimensions of US public health circulate transnationally via health security frameworks and field epidemiology training programs. It seems to me that these security, intelligence and military/policing operations translate not only into overt and official practices during emergencies and in their aftermath, but also in the public health ‘landscape’ and everyday public health work. This includes the CDC museum, one of US public health public facing institutions.

No outsider simply strolls into the CDC museum. Like many US government buildings today — and the CDC since its inception — it has a visible security presence. The museum website prepares visitors by suggesting they allow additional time to undergo the security protocol. Every visitor’s car must be scanned and searched by security personnel stationed at a kiosk near the entrance; every visitor must register, sign in, and pass through a metal detector; every visitor’s belongings must pass through an x-ray machine.  The first time I visited the museum to see the Ebola: People + Public Health + Political Will exhibit, it was after normal office hours, and I arrived by car with a friend who was also a CDC employee. The guard waved us through after my friend showed his ID and decal, and told the security guard that I was his guest.

The second time I visited, late morning the next day, I arrived alone and on foot from the MARTA bus stop located outside the campus entrance. I suspected that my being a pedestrian was not pedestrian at all — or at least it was foreign, for a non-employee. (It is Atlanta, after all, which is notorious for being ‘car friendly’). I spotted a couple other pedestrians, but they were marked as employees by their prominently displayed CDC badges, and walked on the sidewalks closer to the main building.  Security guards posted in or near the kiosk a couple hundred feet from the museum entrance directed me to a designated pedestrian area. Additional security personnel insisted that I not walk in a grassy area (where a sidewalk should have been), and shepherded me through two short crosswalks so that I could walk safely on the sidewalk on the other side of the road.

Like the pedestrian route to the museum’s entrance, what can be said, published or known about the goings-on at the CDC is carefully managed. This curation is deeply entangled with and central to agency employees’ experience of the public facing dimensions of their work. The public facing side of the CDC is, as I describe earlier, a tightly managed discourse. Security protocol is similarly tight. A security supervisor sat at the front desk facing the entrance, registering visitors on a ledger. Non-citizen adults are required to present a passport; US citizens, a government-issued ID or driver’s license.

Those who secure admission upon presentation of a photo ID, receive a visitor’s badge. Pre-authorized visitors receive pre-printed badges, which I was encouraged to take home as a souvenir. Museum visitors are asked to confine their visit — and their photographic equipment — to designated museum areas. Other areas adjoining the museum — staff offices, for example, are off limits, though the restrooms and communications’ offices are largely unguarded spaces. Campus areas outside the museum are restricted to employees only, unless they are accompanied by a CDC employee and have received prior authorization to transit through these areas. I visited the museum three times over the course of two years — twice to visit the Ebola exhibit– and was surprised to see that at each visit, despite all these barriers to entry, there were always a few non-employees (signaled by their visitor badges) lingering in the lobby or amongst the exhibit’s many objects.  

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