According to the Supreme Court, the term MARTIAL LAW means the use of military force with the purpose of control over some populated area which is considered as problematic because of civil war or any other kind of chaos.  Martial law by itself is very rare and a not so popular decision from above, but it is the only one in the hard periods of state instability. Sometimes, this system of ruling is misused by the government to enforce its own position through the suspension of civil rights, constitutional law and habeas corpus.  Usually, this mechanism is chosen when state authorities fail to lead the society or they are using it to contain the civilian unrest.


Martial law is differently imposed from country to country, but the structure is always and everywhere the same – you wake up and don’t have any rights to do anything or go anywhere. You become a prisoner of the world you have firmly believed is free. That is the reason why martial law has been such a hot issue for interpretation among not only law makers, but also among philosophers and civil right defenders. There are no experts who know for sure when we will need martial law and how it will look like when it is implemented. All what we can do for now is to analyze and scrutinize it so if one day, should it be implemented, it will not affect society as strongly as a civil war, natural disaster or outbreak.  As many of theorists say, when martial law is declared, the civilian party is over.

In the age of constant threats from new emerging infectious diseases and possible outbreaks all over, martial law is getting that new rising status –a medical one. That means that the uncertain epidemiological future of our world will challenge us with the options of imposing Medical Martial Law to save lives or simply refusing to enact martial law during the outbreak periods and protect freedom and rights, but lose human life.

Medical Martial Law is defined as a special kind of martial law which could be executed in an emergency situation of high alert from infectious disease where epidemic level grows into pandemic on specific geographic areas. In these circumstances, Medical Martial Law becomes the only way to form the quarantine, build a protocol for screening the viral disease and detect the potential infected.  It would use a synthetically based bio-surveillance guide based on the outcome of carefully designed epidemiological integration processes.

It seems so simple to declare Medical Martial Law under the explanation that there is no other policy for protecting citizens other than to protect them from themselves.  This is the key in opening the door of understanding interests of government in announcing the Medical Martial Law. From one point of view, that is a good helpful strategy to limit the fire into one hot zone. On the other side, that is also a tactic for a government to put the umbrella over all civilian rights and to tell us that we should forget about the freedom for a while. During the outbreaks, you do not need freedom, you need safety. But, where is the fine line between bio-safety and freedom?  Would you want to have bio-security paid for by the suspension of your liberty? Those are question to ask to allow us to identify when there is a real need for Medical Martial Law, especially during the last outbreak chaos caused by Ebola spreading.

In 2014 and 2015, global Ebola has shown us that which we were blind to for such a long period of time. Society was drenched with unpreparedness for this viral threat which was familiar to scientists for more than 30 years. None expected that Ebola would get out of West Africa and step into other continents. America wasn’t prepared to react on Ebola strike on its own soil. The first Ebola case in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital involving Liberian man Thomas Duncan introduce us to inadequate procedures in dealing with this highly infectious viral disease. With the budget of $ 6.9 billion for 2014, CDC didn’t make and have appropriate procedures in emergency response. In 2015, it was provided $1.77 billion for a plan against Ebola that included $571 million for domestic response, $603 million for international response and $597 million for global health agenda.

The scenario that happened in the U.S., where Ebola virus was treated as any ordinary virus, shows us that without making big step forward into biohazard policy regarding this, political background has more influence than a pure scientifically approach. The CDC, as a government body, couldn’t do anything without approval by the officials. Those officials didn’t want to devastate economy by limiting airplane traffic and travel fluctuations in and out the endangered zone, but they were ready to accept the particular procedure of a limited Medical Martial Law, and take away freedom from their own citizens. This, of course, doesn’t come only from the current administration or the previous one. It is common to the World Health Organization (WHO) pandemic preparedness planning which states, “overrule of existing legislation or (individual) human rights in order to quell a viral outbreak, and were originally drafted around the potential of an influenza crisis.”

It is more than useful to make quarantine check-in stations on the airports for new arrivals or to send quick strike team on the U.S. border to prevent possible arrivals of infected people. That is all legitimate and absolutely rational implementation of Medical Martial Law or at least one dimension of it. In many ways, Medical Martial Law in the U.S. during this first Ebola outbreak wasn’t imposed radically and only some sequences were implemented around ground zero.

With the existence of the Posse Comitatus Act, what would allow and justify the use of military force against citizens?  It reminds us of potential misuse of Medical Martial Law. Citizens are not invited to decide if they are sick or not, but if they are under suspicion that they could be potential carriers of deadly virus, they will be put under the new occurring quarantine rules for a while. They are detained until proven healthy. If they do not allow medical staff to process them, they will be considered a threat and will be processed as a threat through the force.  What if someone seems like he is sick and is not, but current bio detection technology failed to give the right answer?  He will be medicated against his will and he will be located in some FEMA camp for monitoring.

It is absolutely normal that one should be stopped from infecting thousands, but who says where the boundaries are between our freedoms and bio safety we are hoping we will achieve one day. You can’t have both. At least, you can’t have both which are not at odds with each others. What you can have is prepared health protocols and epidemiological measures which should be followed in every hospital, regardless of whether or not we have hot zone.  We need health protocols based on common sense even more than we need freedom. Medical Martial Law is a good thing when you have professional government and informed people. If any of these features is absent, then Medical Martial Law is a badly imagined scary movie you don’t want to watch.

Sandra Maksimovic-Sara, has an MA in Biological  Counter Terrorism Studies, with special interests of researching and writing about  Biological Weapons, Biosecurity and Biodefense. Sandra hails from Serbia.