Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Military, National Disasters, and Posse Comitatus

The principle that the military can not be used for operations within the "homeland", as it has come to be referred to, is one that is often taken for granted in the discussion and practice of American (meaning, of course, US) democracy. Both by those who believe it is a very important principle and by others who think, as a lot of even "liberal" and "Democratic" (with a big "D") pundits have said in the last month or so, that since the military is there and it is very well trained and equipped, we should use it. There was quite a bit of discussion about the role of the military in disasters of a national scale in the US media lately, peaking a few weeks ago, and I have been meaning to comment. See for example, the following on National Public Radio:

http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/episodes/10062005
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4864431
and more generally,
http://www.npr.org/search.php?prgId=5&text=posse+comitatus&submit=Go

You will hear the "liberal"s I am talking about.

Frankly, to a person that has lived under more military governments than elected ones, that is scary. And this is coming from a person in the thick of trying to keep track of relief and aid for about a 100 000 or more of my own compatriots in Pakistan. The logic of "they are there, let's use them for this, and since they are the best (physically, I guess) equipped and trained, it would be criminal to not use them" is very, very tempting. But is it a replacement for building up institutions to really do the job the way it should be done?

Take this scenario: Say, two elected governments in a row have scandals that bring governance to a standstill. Then nepotism emerges in a time of national disaster and need. Oh, say mishandling the governmental response to a series of hurricanes followed by a major earthquake, with the appointment of an incompetent administrator for national disaster relief and then profiteering in relief and reconstruction. And then someone says "Well, we need some short-term management expertise to run things till we get back on our feet. Why don't we declare Martial Law--we won't remove the President; the guy we appoint to run things, the Chief Administrator for Homeland Security Law will report to the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, but he'll have broad powers, so he can coordinate things. Just for some months. And it will soothe the nerves of our Chinese and Japanse creditors, too." Wouldn't the folks like the commentator in that NPR clip above say "Hell ya! Bring it on!! And about time, too!!!" Well, that's approximately what happened in Pakistan circa 1958. And again. And again. Most recently around mid-October 1999.

The most interesting and unsettling thing in the US perspective about all this is that the legal basis that prevents us from rushing headlong into that scenario is not a constitutional guarantee. It is a simple law, passed by Congress, usually referred to as "Posse Comitatus". And a simple act of Congress could change it. And given the speed and un-examined way in which, for example, the Patriot Act passed in a moment of national emotion, can anyone look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that it couldn't happen? Think about it.

And moving on to the Pakistani scenario, I'd like my Pakistani brethren and sisters in Pakistan and, especially, in the diaspora, to also take a moment to temper the emotion and energy they are pouring into this time of national need. I get emotional and angry emails about what the army is and isn't doing for earthquake relief in Pakistan and what use it should be put to. I agree that, especially since we don't have the equivalent of a Posse Comitatus and the military is already involved in running so much else, we shouldn't leave any stone unturned in how we can use the military. But let us live up to that Islamic principle that we often quote, and at least know in our hearts that, even though we can't lift a finger to change things, this is not the best, or as we say in Islamic parlance, the "Ahsan", course of action.
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