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Posse Comitatus

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Posse Comitatus"

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Aha! Here’s a good non-election topic. The Posse Comitatus Act that prohibits deploying military forces inside the United States. Vital safeguard of our civil liberties? Glenn Greenwald says yes:

For more than 100 years — since the end of the Civil War — deployment of the U.S. military inside the U.S. has been prohibited under The Posse Comitatus Act (the only exceptions being that the National Guard and Coast Guard are exempted, and use of the military on an emergency ad hoc basis is permitted, such as what happened after Hurricane Katrina). Though there have been some erosions of this prohibition over the last several decades (most perniciously to allow the use of the military to work with law enforcement agencies in the “War on Drugs”), the bright line ban on using the U.S. military as a standing law enforcement force inside the U.S. has been more or less honored — until now.

Robert Farley correctly notes, however, that post-Civil War restrictions on the deployment of the U.S. military were not so much aimed at safeguarding civil liberties as they were at ensuring that African-Americans living in the South could be systematically denied all political and civil rights through an organized campaign of terrorist violence. With state level authorities at best ignoring such terrorism and at worst directly engaging in it, the deployment of federal troops was the only possible method by which to secure the physical safety and basic rights of black people. One also might recall in this regard that federal troops were deployed to Arkansas to ensure compliance with court desegregation orders in Little Rock.

Now I’m not sure how much relevance that has to contemporary debates, but it’s a valuable reminder that the political valence of civil libertarian concerns shifts over time. And not just because members of the out-of-power party tend to be more sensitive to executive power claims. There’s some substantive ideological disagreement, with conservatives tending to see the risks primarily in terms of the long arm of the federal government as threatening the ability of private groups or local governments to engage in discriminatory practices.

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