HOW HE SEES IT American tradition keeps U.S. troops out
By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Nearly every time there is a major catastrophe, the drumbeat begins to send in U.S. military forces. It's only natural. They have the equipment, food, organization and everything else ready to move.
The trouble comes when there is trouble. In New Orleans, a hurricane turned into a flood, followed by looting, gunfire and sporadic reports of murder and rape. A clear breakdown of police authority was obvious by the second night after the hurricane, some experts said.
Yet nothing was done. When there is a law-enforcement crisis in this country, it is not a simple matter just to call in the Marines or the 82nd Airborne Division. The reason is a long American tradition of keeping the military out of civilian law enforcement -- or only as a last resort.
President Bush waited until last weekend to give Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco a take-it-or-leave-it offer to federalize the National Guard troops, which would have put them under Bush's control instead of hers. Blanco had been heavily critical of Bush for being late in providing troops and equipment.
Blanco, after consulting with her legal counsel, said no.
"They wanted to take over my National Guard," she said in an interview with nola.com, a New Orleans news blog. "A governor has to have the final say on what's going to happen."
Blanco's National Guard
Bush has taken a pounding, both nationally and internationally, and from Republicans and Democrats, for his failure to come to the rescue of New Orleans earlier and for his failure to send in the Army. But now he has established that it is Blanco's National Guard that is presiding over the military in the death swamp that is now New Orleans.
It is doubtful people overseas, or even here, will really understand any of this maneuvering. For an American president not being in control of the rescue and emergency efforts in Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast is unthinkable. But that is the mystery of our federal system.
Bush isn't the first president to get criticized both for sending in troops and not sending them in.
In the 1967 "race riots" in Detroit, which began as a celebration in an after-hours bar for two returning from Vietnam service and escalated into violent collisions with Detroit's notorious, mainly white "Tac squads," about 8,000 National Guards were called to quell the rioting.
President Lyndon Johnson, pressed to take action, said he couldn't send in federal troops without Michigan Gov. George Romney's declaring a "state of insurrection." Romney was outraged that the president wouldn't do so. Eventually, Johnson sent in the 82nd Airborne without a state of insurrection being declared and others were outraged.
In the Rodney King riots of 1992, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, called out 4,000 Marines and soldiers from Fort Ord to suppress crowds after California Gov. Pete Wilson requested federal assistance.
There is a great resistance against the use of federal troops in a law-enforcement role, even when they're really needed. At the G-8 summit in Georgia last year, state authorities were in control of federal forces.
All of this reflects a tradition, dating back to well before the American Revolution, of great mistrust in a centralized military force because of the abuses of British redcoats against civilians. It runs through the Whiskey Rebellion, where the Scotch-Irish of the mountains learned to distrust the federal soldiers who came through and destroyed their stills. Later, in the post-Civil War era, the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) was written by Congress to reflect not only that mistrust but the army having been misused to capture runaway slaves.
Yet, there are so many proposed exceptions to PCA, it soon may be hard to know it is still the law of the land. Every time there is a disaster or just a problem, the people's solution is "send in the men and women in uniform."
Proposals to get the military forces more intricately involved in investigating terrorism, drug interdiction, border patrol, immigration and customs laws, as well as investigations of biological and chemical weapons, would take the military further and further away from the job it's supposed to do -- combat and training for it -- and push it closer and closer toward police work.
X John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.