Dread Life
Disease Interventions and the Intimacies of Empire
In every well-ordered society . . . the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty
may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be
enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.
An American citizen arriving at an American port on a vessel in which, during the
voyage, there had been cases of yellow fever or Asiatic cholera, he, although appar-
ently free from disease himself, may yet, in some circumstances, be held in quaran-
tine against his will on board of such vessel or in a quarantine station. . . . The liberty
secured by the 14th Amendment, this court has said, consists, in part, in the right of
a person “to live and work where he will”; and yet he may be compelled, by force if
need be, against his will and without regard to his personal wishes or his pecuniary
interests, or even his religious or political convictions, to take his place in the ranks
of the army of his country, and risk the chance of being shot down in its defense.
—JUSTICE JOHN MARSHALL HARLAN, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, February 20, 1905
A smallpox epidemic is so vicious and kills so many people so rapidly and spreads far
and wide, that, after a great deal of thought, I concluded that the US military people
who have potential vulnerability ought to [be vaccinated].
—DONALD RUMSFELD, interview with Larry King, December 18, 2002
How does the concept of national defense materialize in the form of living
bodies? I begin with two events that serve as entry points for a theory of the
body as a transitional theater of imperial warfare. On July 17, 1902, during the
last smallpox epidemic to hit Boston, a Swedish immigrant named Henning
Jacobson refused an order by the Board of Health of Cambridge for his son
and himself to receive the city’s mandatory vaccinations. He was accordingly
fined five dollars (the equivalent of one hundred US dollars in today’s cur-
rency). Jacobson sued, contending that the state’s requirement violated his
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