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  • Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species by Neel Ahuja
  • Martha Kenney (bio)
Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species by Neel Ahuja. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, 288pp. $24.95 paper.

Neel Ahuja’s Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species is a timely book. With hyperbolic media representations of the 2014 Ebola outbreak and Zika’s recent link to microcephaly in newborns, it is particularly important to understand the ongoing “racialization of transborder epidemics” (5) in the context of US colonialism, imperialism, and militarism. In Bioinsecurities, Ahuja offers five historical cases that demonstrate how US empire has shaped scientific research, public health policy, and media representations of infectious disease. He shows how the circulation of “racial fears of disease” (5) and the “gothic risk of interspecies contact” (10) have been used during the last 150 years to justify US interventions in Hawaii, Panama, Puerto Rico, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Bioinsecurities belongs to a small but growing literature that foregrounds imperial power in the histories of interspecies relations (e.g., Haraway 1989; Anderson 2004; Cassid 2005; Saraiva 2016). By focusing specifically on relations of contagion, containment, and immunity, Ahuja presents empire as an ongoing biopolitical project that governs the lives and deaths of humans and animals. Each chapter examines a different case where the racialization of infectious disease justified health and military interventions in the service of US power, often at the expense of the lives these interventions purportedly sought to protect.

In chapter 1, Ahuja begins to build his argument for the historical relationship between public health and US imperialism through the case of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in annexation-era Hawaii (1898–1959). People with Hansen’s [End Page 175] disease (mostly Native Hawaiians) were denied legal rights and quarantined indefinitely on Moloka’i. Ahuja argues that the quarantine policies helped construct a biological hierarchy where “the Hawaiian as a racial type [was] defined by debility . . . requiring the paternalistic brace of colonial institutions” (48). Bringing together insights from disability studies and postcolonial studies, Ahuja show how humanitarian discourses were not only deployed to treat disease, but also to bring Native Hawaiians into a relation of dependency with the US.

In chapter 2, Ahuja continues his analysis of the racialization of disease under US occupation in the context of VD campaigns in Panama’s Canal Zone (1903–1979). While soldiers’ sexualities were tolerated and regulated, the “surveillance and criminalization of women” intensified (73), culminating in the arrest and quarantine of Panamanian sex workers in 1946–1947 (78). Despite the fact that the occupation of the Canal Zone itself was likely the cause of increased rates of gonorrhea and syphilis, women of color were figured as morally and biologically dangerous “vectors of contagion” (74). This chapter highlights how gender, race, and sexuality animate both conceptions of disease risk and the procedures for its containment.

Chapter 3 is concerned with primate vivisection in Cold War polio research and vaccine production. This chapter showcases one of Ahuja’s key arguments: relations of power are performed through the government of species, where life becomes a site of intervention that can be made to serve “powerful state and capital forces” (11). In the case of US polio vaccine production in the mid-1950s, hundreds of thousands of imported rhesus monkeys were killed (114), “engineering national immunity while dispersing death across primate species” (108). In the 1960s, as the United States transitioned from importing monkeys from India and Central Africa to domestic breeding programs, Ahuja argues that rhesus monkeys were transformed “from racialized objects into docile national subjects” (129).

Chapter 4 explains how the threat of weaponized smallpox—a virus eliminated from the wild in 1979—became a key justification for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the absence of credible evidence. Ahuja shows how primate bioweapons research, speculative fiction, and scenario-based security exercises conspired to create a kind of “crisis thinking” (199) that would warrant increased US military intervention and domestic surveillance. This chapter would work well in an undergraduate class, as the historical context will strike students as simultaneously familiar—we still live within the US security logics of uncertainty...


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pp. 175-179
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