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Military policing of the United States.

The current rush to law and order via military policing of the United States violates basic principles of democracy and American tradition. Until recently, the only large scale military policing of the nation had occurred in the post-Civil War South, where federal soldiers often played a major law enforcement role even after the return of civilian governments. Then in 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, declaring army searches, seizures, and arrests on American soil a penitentiary offense. This act was later extended to other branches of the military.

Yet, President Ronald Reagan resurrected the functional equivalent of military law enforcement when he declared the flow of drugs and illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border a threat to national security and ordered military involvement. The Reagan precedent has continued, even escalated, under George Bush and Bill Clinton--and, incredibly, all without national debate or serious congressional deliberation.

Although Posse Comitatus is still on the books, two big loopholes have enabled the Reagan Bush Clinton rush toward military policing. First, that act has never covered the National Guard. Second, Congress, at the urging of recent administrations, has passed several acts explicitly authorizing a host of military activities stopping just short of technical searches, seizures, and arrests. And, as noted by Timothy Dunn in his recently published Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, the military role in domestic law enforcement is now so broad and deep that it might as well be searching, seizing, and arresting.

In its domestic law enforcement role, the military trains and advises drug and immigration officers. It builds fences along the U.S. border with Mexico and clears brush to facilitate the apprehension of suspects. It furnishes high-tech helicopters and such Orwellian equipment as night goggles and infrared radar that can track people by the heat they emit. It conducts reconnaissance flights in the Southwest, feeding that intelligence to drug and immigration authorities. It patrols the border area and alerts law enforcement officers to suspected persons and activities. National Guard troops search automobiles at ports of entry along the border. When civilian police apprehend drug transporters, guard troops often fly the vehicles to distant points where delivery is made and the purchaser arrested. The military and civilian law enforcement agencies are jointly developing new weapons for dual military-civilian use. And this tally sheet is nowhere near complete.

Military policing is no longer limited to the flow of drugs and illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border. Thousands of soldiers were sent to contain the Los Angeles riots of 1992. At both Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the military provided aerial reconnaissance, advice, and heavy military equipment. Last summer, the government sent thousands of soldiers to secure the Olympics in Atlanta.

And the expansion continues unabated and unquestioned. The Washington Post recently reported: "Army intelligence officers watch for criminal activity from investigative centers in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Greenbelt, Maryland." Also, Congress has authorized the military to extend training to state and local police. The Border Patrol, perhaps the most militarized of all law enforcement agencies, has been authorized to go beyond its traditional role of immigration law enforcement and enforce all federal laws plus the laws of New Mexico and Arizona.

And new voices regularly call for still further military involvement. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation has said he would welcome additional military assistance. Others have advocated sealing the U.S.-Mexican border with a line of soldiers stretching all along its two-thousand-mile length. And there have been calls for authorizing the air force to shoot down suspicious planes along the border.

For a nation increasingly agitated with crime and illegal immigration, the response may well be, "It's about time." But military involvement hasn't noticeably reduced those problems and, even more importantly, it is undermining our freedom and indeed even the national security it is supposed to protect. To cite only a few of the dangers:

* As military officials themselves have argued, military policing weakens the military by diverting it from its most essential function: protecting the nation from its enemies abroad.

* Soldiers and police are indoctrinated with radically different values. Soldiers on foreign battlefields are expected to subdue the nation's enemies by any and all means necessary, while police on the domestic "battlefield" are supposed to obey a document called the U.S. Constitution.

* Militarized law enforcement impacts disproportionately on Mexican Americans because both are concentrated in the border area.

* The military has an inherent secrecy, especially on "national security" matters. Congress, for instance, found it very difficult to pry information from either the military or the Clinton administration about military involvement in Waco. If American law enforcement offices are to be respected, they cannot respond to legitimate public inquiry as if they were "secret police."

But it must be acknowledged that, while Congress and the media have largely abdicated their responsibility to warn the nation of the dangers of militarizing law enforcement, some excellent evaluation has come from the ranks of the military and its close associates. On numerous occasions, military people have warned police and other government officials that certain requests for military assistance violate the Constitution and Posse Comitatus. Former Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told Congress that military policing "is extremely repugnant to a democratic society. When you ask the army to detain, disarm, and disable people, you are going way beyond what the military's role should be" And Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly testified before a congressional committee, "When you deal with police officers, they think in terms of going to court and we don't.... [A] regular old infantry soldier just flips a grenade through the door. We're sort of like the infantry soldier."

But perhaps the most sobering military thinking appears in Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dunlap's "Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," published in the winter 1992/1993 issue of Parameters, an official publication of the United States Army. In this fictional work, Dunlap's narrator, awaiting execution for siding with the civilian government, argues that the roots of the coup were obvious as early as 1992. One of the most obvious and dangerous indicators, he argues, was the militarization of domestic law enforcement.

What we are doing is more than a little paradoxical. Americans have long recognized that military law enforcement is a natural enemy of human rights and that it has always been a common characteristic of the earth's most repressive regimes. And we have one of the strongest traditions of keeping the military in the barracks and urging military governments around the world to return to civilian rule. Yet, while we rush to embrace military policing, the strong worldwide trend for several years has been to get the military out of domestic law enforcement and back into the barracks.

Dunn's book suggests another paradox in our move toward military policing: it is essentially recycled low-intensity conflict doctrine, which failed us so badly in Vietnam. The idea was to make the police more military like and the military more police-like, but the result was terrible human rights abuses and the eventual fall of South Vietnam.

We have gone much farther down the military path than most Americans realize, and three administrations--both Republican and Democrat--have embraced this radical change. Moreover, the slippery slope appears to be getting slicker--because of the juxtaposition of three current conditions: widespread fear of crime; lack of faith in civilian government; and the end of the Cold War, which has left the military in search of new missions.

What we desperately need now is serious national debate on where we are headed. An ideal time is 1997; 2012 might be too late.

George C. Kiser is an associate professor of political science at Illinois State University and has published frequently in books, journals, and newspapers.
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Title Annotation:Human Rights Watch
Author:Kiser, George C.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1997
Words:1301
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