Abstract 3/15: Sabine Mischner (University of Freiburg) – The Temporalities of Exception


In my paper, I argue that one should take a closer look at the temporalities the ‘state of exception’. In the rhetoric legitimizing a state of exception, it is usually a clean-cut periodization that is implied. I will show that this implicit proposition is fundamentally flawed. As a case study, I analyze the American Civil War during which the extent of presidential war powers has been vigorously tested, setting precedents whose repercussions can still be felt today. While some aspects of this story are specific to the political system of the USA, others do offer general insights into the functioning of states of exception.

Periodization: The Temporal Argument. States of exceptions are oftentimes introduced by suggesting a clear periodization, consisting of three stages: before – during – after. Explaining why the Lincoln administration had deliberately suspended and actively ignored several constitutional protections of imprisoned civilians, officials claimed that these protections “in truth, are all peace provisions of the Constitution and, like all other conventional and legislative laws and enactments, are silent amidst arms, and then the safety of the people becomes the supreme law”. In short, a temporal argument was used to legitimize extraordinary deviations from the constitution.

The Long Shadow of Emergency Measures. The American Civil War provides three insight-ful examples of how a state cannot simply return to the status quo ante. – (1) Enduring Legacies. The steps actually taken to secure the safety of the Union received much scholarly attention and incited numerous debates. It is beyond doubt that Lincoln and his administration decisively shaped the American state(s), be it politically, fiscally, economically, socially or culturally. The laws, decrees and proclamations that elicited these changes were enacted in a democratic setting, yet often the result of the special war powers of the president. Thus, the legacies of the state of exception endured far longer than the war lasted. The same is true for the US and other countries in the First and Second World Wars. Therefore, the periodization mentioned above does not hold, since the ‘afterwards’ was immensely shaped by the ‘during’ und thus could never have been the same as ‘before’. – (2) Setting Precedents. Similarly, every exceptional action taken sets a precedent for later states of exception. In the case of the American Civil War, the US Supreme Court rulings largely sanctioned Lincoln’s extraordinary measures. Also, it basically declined to even assess the question of what might be appropriate under exceptional circumstances, arguing that this appraisal is political, not judicial, paving the way for decades of similar judicial evasions. Thus, it was Lincoln who set precedents, not the courts. – (3) Continuing War Powers. Finally, it should be noted that according to a common interpretation of the American constitution, the president’s war powers extend way beyond the actual emergency, the end of which, again, courts would not assess. In sum, the temporal argument advanced to legitimize the exception can only be called fictional, insofar as the actual timeframes connected to the state of exception endured far longer than was implied.

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