A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous defense budget bill at the Bush administration's behest that makes it easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.
The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president's use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.
The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any "other condition."
Changes of this magnitude should be made only after a thorough public airing. But these new presidential powers were slipped into the law without hearings or public debate. The president made no mention of the changes when he signed the measure, and neither the White House nor Congress consulted in advance with the nation’s governors.
This week a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star called Chris Hedges's warnings about the rise of fascism in the US "idiotic". According to him, that Hedges is allowed to write and speak proves democracy reigns. I wrote this letter (unpublished) in reply:
Letter writer [name] of Toronto believes that saying the US is turning fascist is "idiotic". Perhaps he is looking for the wrong signs. Just because there are no tanks rolling through the streets and some dissent is allowed does not make a country a democracy.
Right now in the US, there is: overwhelming evidence that the last two presidential elections were fraudulent; the president's legal right to imprison American citizens indefinitely without charging them with a crime; endless war; government propaganda being disseminated through supposedly independent media; the escalating influence of religious fundamentalism in every public institution.
Perhaps we are witnessing something we have not seen before: a fascist state dressed in the trappings of democracy. The danger is not using a word too soon. It's recognizing the threat too late.
Please add this to my list.