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Law in the Time of Cholera: Disease, State Power, and Quarantine Past and Future
Temple Law Review (2007)
  • Felice J Batlan, Chicago-Kent College of Law
When the World Trade Center Twin Towers fell in 2001, the United States entered a period of what seems like perpetual crisis-a country increasingly threatened from within and outside its borders. In the aftermath of 9/11, Arab Americans, as well as other foreign nationals, worried about their immigration status and the potential violence they might face and feared that they would be painted as enemies of the United States. In law enforcement initiatives following the attacks, Arab American men were jailed, often for significant periods of time, on charges that were at best specious. Likewise, enemy combatants in Guantinamo Bay have essentially been quarantined, cut off from the political body, so that their potential ideas and actions cannot harm those within the United States. Such preemptive imprisonments are intended to contain any threat to the well-being of the United States. We might understand such detentions as political quarantines. It was of course in the wake of 9/11 that Congress created the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"). As its name implies, DHS's mission is to secure the delineated domestic space of the nation from dangers both internal and external.
In many ways the threat of terrorism from an unseen enemy, the fear and sense of crisis that it engenders, and the use of preventative quarantines are not new. Throughout the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States faced multiple epidemics of deadly diseases. In the face of such epidemics, and often in moments of panic, governments instituted significant quarantines. As in the case of the so-called war against terror, public officials understood quarantines as crucial to protecting the literal well-being of the nation. Such quarantines most harshly affected those who stood on the margins of society, often poor immigrants and nonwhites. 


This Article closely examines two episodes of threatened epidemics that occurred in 1892 in New York City. Both of these potential epidemics, one involving typhus and the other cholera, resulted in the quarantine of thousands of people, the large majority of whom were poor immigrants, primarily Italians and Russian Jews. The Article explores the events surrounding these epidemics and the roles that local, state, and federal governments played. It also analyzes how the legal system ultimately failed to protect some of the most vulnerable people-those who were seen as having the capacity to pollute the country and the body politic. The Article then goes on to examine a number of other largescale quarantines that occurred at the turn of the century and the often troubling jurisprudence that they produced.
Publication Date
February, 2007
Citation Information
Law in the Time of Cholera: Disease, State Power, and Quarantine Past and Future, 80 Temple Law Review 53.