- 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
- 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 police.
- 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
- 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
- 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 state.
- 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 military-industrial complex.
- 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.