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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Much Ado about Posse'

The new 'powers-that-be' in America are talking about a fundamental change in role of the U.S. military in homeland security. You'll hear a lot in the coming debate from the conservative side about something called "Posse Comitatus", an 1878 act of Congress which supposedly prevents the US military from being involved in homeland law enforcement. You'll also hear from the liberal side that the Posse Comitatus act is 130 years old and doesn't actually have anything to do with the military being involved in law enforcement. This is, in fact, the exact opposite of the arguments they all took in this debate just 5 short years ago.

As usual, the truth is somewhere floating around in the political-philosophical plankton. In 2003 the ACLU set up a hue and cry at the establishment of US Northern Command (NorthCOM) by the Army as a response to the threat of terrorism in the U.S.. There was a lot of discussion about the Posse Comitatus act at the time, with folks on the left citing Posse Comitatus as their authority for opposing this terrible grab for power by the Bush administration. The furor eventually died away, especially after the 2006 elections made it evident that the tide of power was shifting left.

Turns out they were only concerned about military intervention on American soil if President Bush was president at the time. Seems they have no such qualms about President Obama. Recently Barak Obama suggested that we establish a couple of quick response Army battalions for use by homeland security in the US in the event of a large scale terrorist attack. This proposal garnered no howls of protest from the guardians of our liberties on the left. I think I heard crickets!

Seems the argument is not about having the club. It's about whose hands the club is in. Jack boots do not enslave people. People enslave people.

So let me wade into this quagmire and see if we can fish out some facts.

In the first place, the military does on occasion dabble in law enforcement here in the good old USA.

Don't you people watch NCIS? Anybody remember the National Guard's participation in the Civil Rights unrest during the 60's.

Second, Posse Comitatus doesn't provide us any protection against the military meddling in stuff that happens on American soil. The original act simply forbids local law enforcement from calling up US troops (the US Cavalry at the time) to act as a posse (hense the name Posse Comitatus). The law says Sheriff Smith can't order the local Green Beret to join in a manhunt for the bootlegger that slipped out the back door of the county jail without the president's permission. That's all!

Over the years, military commanders stretched their interpretation of the law to keep thier troops out of local politics and legal entanglements. It was convenient for them to do so. It also got them out of the nastiness that was going on in the South over reconstruction.

Over the past 130 years, Americans have come to view the Posse Comitatus Act, however, as a protection against the kind of jack-booted thuggery against our own citizens that we witnessed in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Unfortunately, the 1878 Act provides only a false sense of security. Posse Comitatus offers us no such protection from the military. Military experts have been busily "clarifying" Posse Comitatus for the past decade and with the rising threat of terrorism, the US government and the military, through the offices of FEMA and Homeland security, have put in place the equipment and facilities that could easily be misused by a despotic administration. This includes:

  • Prepositioned internment camps designed to house disaster victims or disruptive elements of the populace in a national emergency (can you say "martial law").
  • Army plans for training and prepositioning regular troops to reinforce state or national guard troops and to assume populace control responsibilities in an "emergency".
  • A recent discussion about giving the president power to over-ride state governors and order both national guard and regular troops into "crisis zones" without permission from the states. Some commentator maintain that he already has the power to do that. You may remember the Civil War was fought partly over the use of Federal troops against US citizens.
  • A recent Obama proposals to create a 200,000 man "military style" security force that has all the equipment, training and power of the military that is moving forward as we speak.
Till now we've been happy with a small FBI. Apparently not so, anymore. The FBI is growing by leaps and bounds in both capacity and authority. CIA is even running radio commercials to recruit operatives. I've never heard that before. So why are we increasing national security resources instead of leaving it in the hands of the locals.

One word: Terrorism

Thanks to fears of terrorism, we had more US troops at the Salt Lake City Olympics than were in Afghanistan at the time, all on the president's authority.
The Posse Comitatus tradition and law is so riddled with holes that the President can decide to deploy the armed forces and the National Guard on his own authority whenever he decides something is a national security issue. President Bush started it. It looks like President Obama intends to take it and run with it.

Unfortunately, there is a very big danger when we put people, whether they be soldiers or policemen or ordinary citizens in positions of power and authority over their fellows. I worked for almost a decade in residential treatment centers for children. During that time I saw people who were the soul of kindness and charity turn into something I did not recognize. Institutions where human beings are incarcerated against their wills and made to follow a regimen almost invariably "set up" the staff who must enforce the incarceration and maintain the regimens.

I saw staff members speak to kids and handle them in ways that would have done the Gestapo proud. I worked at a very good institution too. I did a lot of the training and constantly had to work with my staff to help them remember that they weren't prison guards. The environment set them up to believe that was exactly what they were supposed to do. We emphasized empowering the kids, giving them choices, helping them become self-governing. It was hard to keep that going because the need to corral difficult kids and control the violent ones kept pulling staff back into the "guard" roles.

Two famous research experiments, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment delved into the psychology of the prisoner/guard relationships. Both were terminated early when the "guards" became overzealous enforcers and became abusive. There is abundant evidence that when you give a person authority and power to punish and a mission to control the behavior of another person, you undermine their principles. They may believe in the Golden Rule everywhere else, but within the context of their "guard" role, they enforce an "Iron Rule" that bears little resemblance to the principles they think they truly believe in.

The guards at Abu Graib were not the instigators of abusive treatment of the prisoners. They were never trained to resist the impulse to abuse. They were discouraged from seeing their charges as anything other than vicious animals. Consequently they treated them as such and got in trouble when they did.

Now, we're talking about training our young soldiers to look at Americans as potential enemies and to view their new role as guards and enforcers of law. My concern is not only for what that is going to do with to heads, but also what will be the effect of putting "military style" power into their hands while they are under this kind of pressure.

You don't want soldiers who are trained to unfettered warfare, to use those skills against the very people they have always before been charged to protect. It fundamentally changes who they are. It was disastrous when we used troops against kids at Kent State and against ordinary civilians during the civil right riots of the 60's. It will be disastrous again. I don't care who's the president.

When the guns are pointed at us on the inside instead of at our enemies on the outside, the gun-bearers change and we change too. It's a recipe for revolution. We went through that once in our history. So profound was our repugnance for what the British did against the colonists that we wrote into the constitution a provision that the government couldn't quarter soldiers in our homes.

In principle, I believe that using the military as a police force or even giving the police force the power of the military is just setting us up for trouble. It's giving law enforcement too much firepower. We don't think they can handle it and Americans won't stand for it. That's why the gun stores are selling ammunition as fast as they can stock it. That's why I can walk 3 blocks from my house out here in the country and buy an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, if I don't mind waiting till they get another shipment in.

I'm just afraid that this time the revolution that's brewing won't be a 1776 style revolution lead by wise and courageous men becaue of a love of liberty and high moral principles. It's going to be an angry mob-led French style revolution and a bloody awful thing to see.

Using military power against the American people is a mistake. If we turn the guns on ourselves, we are asking to have our liberties stripped away from us.

As that imminent philosopher Han Solo said once, ""Hey, point that thing someplace else."

Good advice!

Tom King

1 comment:

David Berger said...

Wow! What a great Article!