Saturday, September 24, 2005

Posse Comitatus and disaster response

In a nutshell, here's the situation.

Posse Comitatus together with the Insurrection Act bars the military from serving in a domestic law-enforcment capacity, unless there is open rebellion. Concern about granting the military too much power actually pre-dates and informs the Constitution; it started with resentment the colonists felt when they were forced to provide room and board to British soldiers. Some of the strongest resistance to amending posse comitatus has historically come from the military itself, which argues that providing law-enforcement services distracts them from their real mission because it requires such fundamentally different skills.

Yet, President Bush wants to enhance the role of the military in large-scale disaster responses. Doing so requires amending posse comitatus. The National Guard obviously already has a role in response, but in this case they serve in a humanitarian capacity rather than law-enforcement. They can't arrest people, in short.

George Bush apparently cares about neither the potential threat to civil liberties nor the military's almost-certain resistance to this idea. Rather, he sees for himself the opportunity to enhance his powers as commander-in-chief. Typically, when he has been seen as a strong commander, his popularity numbers have gone up. Which, from his point of view, they really need to do. At least, that's my theory about his motivation.

Here are my concerns. Definitely, I want the disaster response to go better next time. I want the National Guard to be there in its humanitarian role. More specifically, I want them to be available rather than be off fighting an ill-conceived war with no end in sight. But I don't think that we need to jump to the conclusion that the problem with the response was a lack of force.

Rather, I think the problem was a lack of finesse -a case of organizational bungling across the board, but most spectacularly at the federal level. So, why would we respond by giving the least effective component of a disaster response still more power? How about training, organizational assistance, and possibly even a little bureaucratic trimming so that they can respond more nimbly? Amending posse comitatus is another threat to our Constitutional protections from an overbearing federal government. I side with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson here; the choice between security and freedom is ultimately false. There is no security without freedom.

And, in the spirit of this blog, what can a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens do? Well, think for one thing. Don't let your justifiable anger over the horrible scenes from New Orleans cloud your judgement. And let the decision-makers know you are thinking. In my never-humble opinion, we ought not let the very institution designed to protect our liberties become a threat to those liberties itself.

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