The Late, Great American Nation

By John W. Whitehead

“It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.” —James Madison

We live in a fundamentally different country since 9/11. Not only do many Americans view their government with suspicion, but how their government views them has drastically changed.

A perfect example of this took place last fall. Prior to the elections that transformed the makeup of Congress, the Bush Administration pushed for the inclusion of two stealth provisions into a mammoth defense budget bill. The additions made it easier for the government to declare martial law and establish a dictatorship.

Since the days of our Founding Fathers, when King George III used his armies to terrorize and tyrannize the colonies, the American people have understandably distrusted the use of a national military force to intervene in civilian affairs, except in instances of extreme emergency and limited duration.

Hence, as a sign of the Founders’ concern that the people not be under the power of a military government, control of the military was vested in a civilian government, with a civilian commander-in-chief. And the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 furthered those safeguards against military law, making it a crime for the government to use the military to carry out arrests, searches, seizure of evidence and other activities normally handled by a civilian police force.

However, with the inclusion of a seemingly insignificant rider into the massive defense bill (the martial law section of the 591-page Defense Appropriations Act takes up just a few paragraphs), the Bush Administration has managed to weaken what the New York Times refers to as “two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty.” One is posse comitatus. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which limits a president’s domestic use of the military to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion where a state is violating federal law or depriving the people of their constitutional rights.

Under these new provisions, the president can now use the military as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any “other condition.” According to the new law, Bush doesn’t even have to notify Congress of his intent to use military force against the American people—he just has to notify them once he has done so. The defense budget provision’s vague language leaves the doors wide open for rampant abuse. As writer Jane Smiley noted, “the introduction of these changes amounts, not to an attack on the Congress and the balance of power, but to a particular and concerted attack on the citizens of the nation. Bush is laying the legal groundwork to repeal even the appearance of democracy.”

The main reason we do not want the military patrolling our streets is that under martial law, the Bill of Rights becomes null and void. A standing army—something that propelled the early colonists into revolution—strips the American people of any vestige of freedom. Thus, if we were subject to martial law, there would be no rules, no protections, no judicial oversight and no elections. And unless these provisions are repealed, the president’s new power will be set in stone for future administrations to use—and abuse.

A fundamental principle of American government is to not trust public officials. But modern Americans, primed by television pablum and ignorant of their history, have a tendency to trust people in office simply because they appear to share a common faith, say the right things or come from a certain region of the country. But lest we forget, power has a tendency to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Furthermore, the way this was handled proves that we cannot trust government officials. By sneaking this provision in as a rider to a larger bill, public debate and media attention were avoided. Had the provision been openly discussed and debated, there would have been opposition and outcry. And it most likely would have been soundly rejected. Instead, it was rushed through the Republican-controlled Congress prior to the elections and enacted into law.

The Founding Fathers would have literally been up in arms over Bush’s actions. They understood the dangers inherent in vesting power in a single person, which is exactly what this legislation purports to do. There’s no limit to what the president can now do: the “any condition” language opens the door for total power, a dictatorship. The people are left with no defense.

Furthermore, this legislation erases the balance between the state and federal government. The state governors understood this, and that’s why many vocally opposed the provisions. But it was to no avail.

Who’s to blame here? Congress has utterly failed to exercise its power to check the growing power of the Executive Branch. The media have also been woefully remiss. Although a handful of bloggers sounded the alarm, the major media outlets failed to report on it. If it weren’t for a recent editorial in the New York Times, most people would still be in the dark. What’s the point of a free press if you can’t rely on the media to report the news?

However, the larger blame rests with the Bush Administration, whose actions over the past six years suggest that the American people are the enemy. Think about some of the changes that have already moved us closer to a police state: the invasive USA Patriot Act; the increased domestic surveillance of citizens’ emails and telephone calls; attempts to deny habeas corpus to prisoners; a national ID card; and now this alarming new law. In addition to opening the doors to a military state, the law also facilitates militarized police round-ups and detaining of protesters in detention camps that are already being built on American soil by the Halliburton corporation. Americans are incredibly na´ve if they believe those camps being built are just for illegal aliens.

A pattern is emerging, predicated on one horrific incident in 2001. The current administration is laying the groundwork for a military state, and this is our final wake-up call.

Click here to watch a corresponding video commentary with John Whitehead

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