- NEW YORK -- Of all the
bad ideas that have been pouring from the Bush administration - the
faux war on terrorism, the Palestine mess, invading Iraq, curtailment
of civil liberties, unilateralism, growing deficits, farm subsidies,
steel tariffs - among the very worst is the dangerous proposal that
U.S. military forces be given domestic police powers.
- Bush administration officials, notably the chief of
the newly created Northern Command, Gen. Ralph Eberhart, have been
calling for the Pentagon to assume a much greater domestic role in the
so-called war against terrorism. A role, apparently, that would give
the military power to conduct investigations and surveillance, use
troops to "maintain order and security" and arrest American citizens.
Canadians might be next, since Canada has been involuntarily placed
under the U.S. Northern Command.
- This frightening plan comes on the heels of Bush's
cutely named but sinister TIPs program, a network of citizen informers
that recalls evil memories of ubiquitous Soviet and Chinese civilian
informers, children denouncing parents, and East Germany, where a
quarter of the adult population spied for the Stasi secret
- In the magisterial Roman Republic, father of all our
western democracies, consular armies were forbidden by law to enter
the city. The Romans realized over 2,400 years ago that soldiers had
to be strictly kept out of politics. The Roman Republic died during
the 1st century BC civil wars after military leaders Marius, Sulla
and, later, Caesar, brought their armies into politics.
- America's Congress - which was patterned on the
Roman Senate - clearly recalled this history when it passed the Posse
Comitatus Act of 1878 which outlawed the use of federal military
forces for domestic law enforcement. Congress was intent on
maintaining supremacy of civilian rule and protecting civil liberties.
Properly restrained, the military was a useful tool; unrestrained, a
dangerous and ruthless master.
- Soldiers are trained to kill enemies, not to perform
complex police duties that require professionalism, restraint and
knowledge of the law. Long, painful experience around the world has
repeatedly shown that once the military is brought in to "maintain
order" or perform policing, it almost inevitably becomes corrupted,
despotic and politicized.
- One need only look at the doleful history of
Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay,
Chile and Venezuela to see that when soldiers take over internal
security, they inevitably end up taking over the government as well.
When soldiers are allowed to police, they suddenly realize their
latent power and go from being second-class citizens to cocks of the
walk. Law quickly gives way before raw power. Those who have served in
the military - as this writer has - have a healthy fear of military
justice and its drumhead implementation.
- Interestingly, the Soviet communists were even more
sensitive to this threat. Lenin repeatedly warned of "Bonapartism" and
urged the party to keep control of internal security and police in the
hands of civilians.
- The Posse Comitatus Act was amended by the Reagan
administration to allow use of the military in an earlier bogus "war"
- the war on drugs.
- In this case, the military was sent to identify and
intercept drug smugglers outside America's borders. At the time, the
idea seemed reasonable. But in retrospect, the inflow of drugs has
barely been reduced while the military has ended up with a boot in the
door of domestic law enforcement.
- In 1997, Congress gave the military the power to
co-operate with other government departments in countering biological
or chemical attacks. This made sense because the military had an
arsenal of biowarfare detection, neutralization gear, vaccines and the
training to use them. But Congress expressly forbade the military from
arresting civilians during biowarfare operations.
- Now, some of the far-rightists who populate the
darker corners of the Bush administration are using public fear and
hysteria generated by incessant claims of imminent nuclear or
biowarfare attack to press for what amounts to the beginning of
national martial law. We hear calls for greater surveillance of phones
and e-mail. Next will come calls for limits on speech and dissent.
George Orwell laid out this whole grim process in his epochal novel,
1984. Anyone who wants a feel of what martial law would be like should
see the gripping Burt Lancaster film about a Pentagon coup against the
White House, Seven Days in May.
- Fortunately, Congress, much of the top brass and
even Pentagon super-hawk Donald Rumsfeld seem opposed to this daft
idea. Good for them. Separation of the civil and military is even more
basic and sacred an American concept than separation of church and
- The voice Americans should be listening to is that
of the closest thing the United States had to a noble Roman tribune -
former president Dwight Eisenhower. As this great American and former
general was leaving office, he warned his people that the gravest
threat they faced was not from abroad but from their own
- The U.S. has ample civilian law enforcement agencies
to ensure domestic security - perhaps too many. Americans don't need
soldiers to act as super-cops. Osama bin-Laden and the far right must
not be allowed to stampede the U.S. into military policing.