It has become exponentially more difficult for me to fall asleep at night, knowing that each new dawn brings with it the possibility of yet another phase in the federal government’s ongoing defiling of Constitutional protections, civil rights and the other assorted nitpicking we have come to expect in a free democracy.
On Monday, it was reported that the U.S. Customs Agency has been opening private mail when “deemed appropriate.” Weeks ago, the New York Times, after suppressing the story for more than a year, reported that President Bush has been authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct wiretaps without the legally-mandated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants. (Thanks be to you, O Liberal Media, for sitting on this one until after the election. Hurray!)
And just before we all went our separate ways for winter break (presumably to watch Bill O’Reilly go completely ballistic over his imaginary “war on Christmas” from the comfort of our families’ homes), Congress deadlocked over renewal of the Patriot Act, even as some of the GOP faithful have become disturbed by Bush’s desire to renew the rather Stalinist legislation permanently.
Of course, it’s hard to pick a favorite piece of terrifying legislation among the glut of all-or-nothing fanaticism that has dominated the federal branches in the past few years, but here’s a gem: Creeping under the radar – ever since Hurricane Katrina made scrambled eggs out of Louisiana and Mississippi – has been President Bush’s suggestion that we “rethink” the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. For those unfamiliar with this act, it is essentially the legal linchpin that prevents the U.S. regular military from exercising policing powers over the civilian population. These forces are available to state and federal officials in times of crisis but are not given a “blank check” to roam the land without a timely, relevant mandate.President Bush, however, citing the military’s apparent effectiveness in bringing New Orleans under control after the city had caved to anarchy, seems to want “more flexibility” to control the regular military in emergency situations such as these.
The good news is that Posse Comitatus more or less stands as it is. While I’m somewhat shocked that this idea hasn’t been fervently denounced by both civil-libertarian leftists and smaller-government conservatives, the general consensus among those who have commented is one of wariness and caution – with the noticeable exception of Republican MVP Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.
The bad news is that over the past 25 years, each president since Reagan has created a new precedent for suspending the act. Given the breadth of power already allotted to the government through a range of U.S. Code amendments, which allow officials to breech Posse Comitatus for a variety of reasons (drug interdiction, civil disturbance, natural disasters, etc.), the president’s sudden fervor to “rethink” the act begs the question: What further military presence within our own borders does Bush desire?In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the congressional investigation into the supposed “intelligence failings,” which allowed the terrorist attacks to occur, concluded that the CIA, et al. suffered from an overall inability to “connect the dots.” Well, maybe they did, but I don’t.
The police forces of our major cities have been exceedingly militarized, as evidenced by the WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and Miami (2004), and again at protests of both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Incomprehensible to the average citizen, the Fourth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution have been effectively benched by the Patriot Act. Over the past four years, several thousand Arab and Muslim men around the country have been abruptly detained without charge for long periods and then summarily deported, often without their families’ knowledge. By 2007, U.S. citizens may need a passport just to drive into Canada.
Under the rubric of “national security,” the government can suspend individual rights at any given time without any real justification. With the proposed meddling to Posse Comitatus, it is not hard to see, frankly, the line in which these dots are arranged, nor to what fate it clearly points.
The place I arrive at, then, is the one that will alternately infuriate, annoy or horrify the reader – but it’s the 8,000-pound elephant in the middle of the room, and somebody’s got to mention it: Whenever fascism is discussed, Nazi Germany is the most prescient example. Although there is a general consensus that “we must never let this happen again,” the passing decades have blurred the public understanding of exactly how it did happen. How, after all, was Germany transformed from a democratic state to a goose-stepping Reich in just a few short years? Turns out, they did it the old-fashioned way: One law at a time.
Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.