While watching coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath, I couldn’t help but notice multiple uses and variations of the word “lockdown” (e.g. “Boston is locked down”). Nor could I help thinking that I’ve been hearing that word used more and more frequently over the last few years, and finding its connotations are troubling.
Internet etymological sources inform me that the word “lockdown” emerged in the 1940s to describe mechanical processes such as shutting down machines in an ultra-safe manner for maintenance (by the time I worked in factories, the term was “lockout,”). Its most well-known usage, however, dates from the early 1970s. Until the last decade or so it was nearly unique to “correctional institutions.”
A prison lockdown occurs in the context of a riot or other exceptional disciplinary situation: All inmates are ordered to their cells (as opposed to the cafeteria, the exercise yard or, in prisons which operate slave labor schemes, their work stations). The facility is temporarily closed to visitors, deliveries, etc. — only “essential personnel” may enter, leave, or move within the grounds.
A useful term to describe a common, or at least standardized, process. But in the early 1990s, the term vaulted over the prison wall and into more general usage. Google’s Ngram service, which traces the frequency of words in books, graphs slow, steady increase in the term’s appearance until 1990, followed by a “hockey stick”: Between 1990 and 2008, use of the term “lockdown” in English-language books ballooned to ten times that 1990 baseline.
Suddenly lockdowns were no longer just a prison thing. They became a school thing, and then an area, neighborhood, city thing.
As of Tuesday morning, April 16, 2013, Google News reported more than 50,000 uses of the word “lockdown” in the news media in the previous 30 days.
“Salem [Massachusetts] schools hold lockdown drills.” “[Dallas, Texas] elementary to dismiss at normal time after lock down” (for nearly five hours because of a single shooting nearby, but not on campus). “Fallston [Maryland] High, Middle schools briefly placed on lockdown” (because a “suspicious person” was reported nearby). Lockdowns at hospitals. Lockdowns at military bases. Neighborhoods locked down for politicians’ social calls and cities locked down for politicians’ funerals.
Ironic? Portentous? Certainly not mere coincidence. The term is becoming so common because it works. It’s descriptive. Not just of the process, but of the societies in which the process is applied.
America in particular and western societies in general have, over the same decades producing that increased usage, degenerated into open air prisons. The inmates — us — although under nearly ubiquitous surveillance, are mostly left free to wander around (not all of them; last time I checked, one of every 32 Americans was “in the correctional system” — imprisoned or on parole, probation or house arrest), as long as we can produce paperwork on demand and “explain ourselves” to the guards if interrogated. And, of course, until the guards pick one of fifty bazillion reasons to “lock down” the block we happen to be on.
That’s not freedom. It’s highly conditional sufferance. And until we reject the lockdown life and abolish the states which impose it, things are going to get more and more conditional and less and less tolerable.