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The Latest Threat to Domestic Security

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Ever since 9/11 our leaders have been eager to play on our fears in order to get us to surrender fundamental rights. We know what at least one of America’s founders thought of that, but it still has been generally successful. Whether or not you think authoritarian measures were justified in the immediate aftermath we are surely past that point now. Yet the government continues to press for more and more restrictions on our liberties. Now that our reptilian brains have largely ceded control back to the prefrontal cortex we might note that the concessions we made in our panic (Patriot Act, Military Commissions Act, Iraq war, etc.) not only have ranged from ineffective to disastrous but have proved to be very durable; the legislation in particular may outlast us all. Simply put, we do not make good decisions in such a state.

Now the president and Congress are looking to extend (via) what Cato Vice President Gene Healy called a "creeping militarization" of homeland security. The reasoning seems to be: Our existing agencies are insufficient to respond in the face of a catastrophic attack, so the solution is to bring in the military to provide that readiness. The Post article mentions Hurricane Katrina in describing the scale of disaster the new program will cover, and I am sure the Pentagon is all too happy to have that period in the public’s mind. Without diving too deeply into psychology here I suspect is the subtext – "There was a big disaster and the federal government couldn’t protect us. Federal blamed local, local blamed state and everyone basically sat around screaming and pointing fingers. That is not how we do things in the military. We’d have jumped in, got rolling and gotten things DONE. Isn’t that what you want the next time around?"

But Katrina was not too big to manage. What was unique about it was the bungled response from the federal government. Local government was wiped out and in no position to respond; the same was true to a lesser extent at the state level. The problem was a president who was on vacation or giving speeches while New Orleans drowned. That set the tone for the whole government – and let’s not forget that no matter how much of a hack Brownie was, it was the president who declared him to be doing a heck of a job. Perhaps if the president had actually gone there, maybe even grabbed a flashlight and visited some victims firsthand, we might have seen a more energetic response. A domestic army headed by that same commander – one openly hostile to the operation of government – would have bungled the response just as badly as FEMA did.

There is a more insidious program at work here as well. After Vietnam the Pentagon made it a point to turn the National Guard into an essential part of any future military conflict. The theory was that large parts of the country were insulated from the costs of war because, unless a loved one had been drafted, there was no visible effect of it. There certainly wasn’t any kind of World War-magnitude civic engagement with gardens, bonds, rations, conservation and the like. But if the military could lodge the Guard into the conflict surely there would be a popular revolt against the much-degraded ability of states to cope with local emergencies. Sentiment would either turn against such a war and force it to an end, or force a much more societal-wide commitment. Either way the Pentagon would not get stuck in limbo.

In theory, anyway. In practice the National Guard and active duty military have been sent into a seemingly endless series of stop-lossed tours and the much diminished reserve units have been allowed to waste away. In an ironic twist there has even been a backlash against the mere suggestion that our domestic preparedness has been affected by Iraq deployments. In trying to lessen the chances of what it regarded as marginalization the new Pentagon strategy had the opposite effect. This war receded even more rapidly and emphatically from public view (with some key assistance) – and took a larger part of the armed forces with it. But then serendipity intervened, potentially letting the defense department to add to its stature and influence (and quite literally become much more visible to the country). It makes perfect sense for military leaders to make use of such an opportunity. Whether that is a good deal for the rest of us is another matter.

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