Friday, October 07, 2005

Black helicopters

I saw a news story the other day which reported that President Bush is looking to either do away with or further limit the Posse Comitatus Act. The act, which is located at 18 USC 1385, says the following:

"Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

This language was written in 1878 during the last throes of Reconstruction. Federal troops had spent the last 13 years keeping the peace and, among other things, protecting polling stations. Though there are suggestions that its authors were concerned that the troops were preventing the imposition of Jim Crow, it is also clear that there were very real concerns about the politicization of a standing army. Whatever the case, this Act has stood since that time for the proposition that armed forces are intended to protect against foreign invaders and that they should not be involved in domestic law enforcement. In a world in which far too many purportedly democratic countries have fallen to rogue armies, this seems like a pretty smart idea.

Now, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, Dear Leader and his cronies want to sink that idea. According to the principle conservative narrative coming out of Katrina, the federal response to the hurricane was not a disaster and any difficulties that arose were either the fault of Democratic state leaders or limitations, such as Posse Comitatus, on the President's ability to act. Thus, the only way for Americans to protect themselves in the future is to elect Republicans to state government and unfetter our President from the arduous confines of the law.

Such a step fits quite nicely withthe unitary executive theory, which Dear Leader and his apologists have adopted wholesale. The unitary executive is the idea that the structural separation of powers written into the Constitution isn't as clear cut as most people would assume. Whereas you or I view our government as a system where Congress creates laws, courts interpret them and the President executes them, a proponent of the unitary executive would argue that the President also has an important interpretive role and that it is his duty to refuse to execute laws he believes are unconstitutional.

The problem with this idea, apart from the fact that it woven out of whole cloth by right-wing idealogues in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, is that it effectively removes the judicial check on presidential actions. And, when you've got an insular administration devoted to secrecy, inclined to fabrication and devoid of decency, that's a dangerous position. In such an administration, it's easy to find people willing to argue thatthe President has carte blanche to torture prisoners or imprison American citizens without charge and without an opportunity for a hearing. The question is, what would those people do if you took away any limit on their power to employ troops within our common boundaries?

I'm not saying there's black helicopters poised to cart us all of to the camps, but one has to wonder whether President Bush and his Republican minions have any outer limits on their will to power.