NEW YORK--Soldiers brandishing automatic weapons, a defining characteristic of life in Third World dictatorships, have become commonplace at airports, bus and train stations, government offices and highway checkpoints since 9/11. Now troops are becoming our first responders to situations, such as natural disasters and flu outbreaks, which normally fall under civilian jurisdiction.
Everything's gone topsy-turvy: The National Guard, charged with keeping order here at home and legally under the control of state governors, has been shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan, shanghaied by the federal government. Here in the United States, whatever comes up, the Bush administration's first reaction is to send in the regular army troops who are supposed to be in Iraq. Whether it's a sinister plot against American democracy or the most sustained large-scale foolishness in history, the Bush administration is tearing down the traditional wall between overseas military action and domestic law enforcement.
Creeping militarism leapt into full view with Bush's October 4 request to Congress to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the use of the military in domestic policing except for the purpose of quelling a revolution. Citing the theoretical possibility that Asian avian flu, now only transmittable from bird to human, could mutate into a human-to-human form, Bush said: "If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And who best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move. I think it's an important debate for Congress to have."
Overturning Posse Comitatus would allow troops to break into houses and apartments and sweep the streets for flu victims, and forcibly contain them in Guantánamo-style camps. They could seal off cities or whole states. These extreme measures could also be deployed against U.S. citizens after hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, or even election disputes--whenever and wherever a president decides they are necessary.
Bush laid the groundwork for his assault on Posse Comitatus on September 26, when he explained his decision to unleash the 82nd Airborne upon Hurricane Katrina-devastated New Orleans: "I want there to be a robust discussion about the best way for the federal government, in certain extreme circumstances, to be able to rally assets for the good of the people." The Louisiana National Guard, meanwhile, was stuck in Iraq.
"The translation of this is martial law in the United States," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Redlener called Bush's proposal to deploy troops on American soil an "extraordinarily Draconian measure." Even Gene Healy, senior editor at the right-wing Cato Institute, said Bush's proposal would undermine "a fundamental principle of American law" that "reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."
All this over avian flu, which to date has killed fewer than 100 people worldwide.
Travel to other countries and you'll find that a society's freedom is inversely related to the number of guys wearing camouflage, brandishing big guns and pulling people over at roadblocks. Blurring the distinction between policing and soldiering, as do the military police in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Jordan, is a defining characteristic of repressive states.
Civilian cops may be rude or even abusive, but they're not supposed to shoot you without a good reason. You're their boss, or at least they work for the mayor you elected. Not so with soldiers. Military troops are responsible only to their chain of command, which is likely to end thousands of miles away in Washington. They shoot sooner and quicker than cops, and they have much bigger guns. Regimes that use the military to maintain order tell their citizens: do what we tell you, or else. They rely upon violence rather than tacit consensus to stay in charge.
Rule under the point of a gun is not democracy.
James Pinkerton of the New America Foundation argues for efficiency over freedom. "When you absolutely, positively, have to get something done right away," he writes in USA Today, "you call in the military. By their very nature, men and women in uniform are oriented toward getting things done. They are trained to complete their mission, or die trying. And as Hurricane Katrina made clear, the rest of the government doesn't hold to such a high standard. So why not the best?"
Federal agencies muffed Katrina because of inadequate budgets and mismanagement, not because they're intrinsically incompetent. Moreover, there's little evidence that militarizing domestic functions makes the trains run on time. The military controls everything from road construction to trash collection, yet Pakistan remains a nation that suffers from systemic corruption, a staggering drug problem and crippling disparity of wealth--not to mention an endless low-intensity civil war. Most European democracies, by contrast, enjoy a higher standard of living--and more efficient government--than the United States. And they do it without pointing automatic rifles at flood victims lining up for food and water.
But what if military dictatorship could be proven a more efficient form of government than old-fashioned democracy? What if a standing army could do what a bunch of namby-pamby bureaucrats can't? Would it be worth it?
That's the choice George W. Bush is asking Congress, and thus us, to make. The fact that he hasn't been impeached for daring to ask it highlights the dictatorial tendencies of those who share his contempt for personal liberty.