Reflexive Militarism

Some have charged that President Bush’s plan to deploy 6,000 National Guardsmen to support roles along our border with Mexico constitutes “militarizing the border.” Well, sort of. But “security theater” is probably a better term. It’s a highly visible move designed to provide the appearance of increased security without actually increasing it, much like the use of guardsmen at the airports following September 11th.

In this case, the troops will be “operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads, and providing training,” according to the president’s speech Monday night. They will be under the command of the state governors, they will not have arrest authority, and they will not be involved in direct law enforcement activities, which means that there’s no objection based on the Posse Comitatus Act, the longstanding federal statute that restricts use of federal troops to “execute the laws.” On the whole, this is a far cry from some of the proposals for hard-core border militarization floating around on the right.

Yet the Bush administration does have a tendency, when faced with political trouble, to reach for the military. Trying to look decisive in the wake of Katrina last fall, the president asked for major revisions to Posse Comitatus twice in the space of a month, once to fight hurricanes and once to order military quarantines for Avian flu. Monday’s proposal is merely the latest iteration of the administration’s reflexive militarism, and it’s a comparatively mild one at that.

But here’s something a little more troubling than the upcoming exercise in security theater at the border. In the administration’s internal legal analysis, the Posse Comitatus Act may be vulnerable to going “poof,” as yet another statute touched by the Magic Scepter of Inherent Authority. There are a lot of bad ideas floating around about domestic militarization of the war on terror. If there’s another serious terror attack, that legal theory could be used to make some of those bad ideas happen.