In 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, bringing billions of dollars in destruction, utter devastation, and lawlessness to the city of New Orleans. In the midst of flood waters, looters went on a rampage of smashing windows and stealing guns, electronics, clothing, jewelry, and whatever else they might have wanted. Local police and fire departments were unable to stop the lawlessness, and in fact, some law enforcement officers had been seen participating in the grab-and-run. At the same time, the Superdome and Convention Center overflowed with thousands of storm refugees without the necessities of life.
The National Guard, under the command of Governor Kathleen Blanco, was overwhelmed with rampant lawlessness in the city. President George W. Bush was ready to send in the military to stop the lawlessness but found he was hindered by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 that prohibited a president from using the military as law enforcement.
Yet there was a loophole, demonstrated by a couple of earlier presidents issuing orders to the active-duty military to suppress insurrection. In 1957 President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, over the protests of Governor Faubus. The validity of Eisenhower’s decision was never reviewed by the courts, but in Cooper vs. Aaron, the court rejected the idea that it was the duty of the president to faithfully execute the laws. Second, Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush, had invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 to quell the riots of Los Angeles after the state governor made a request for help. And third, President John F. Kennedy sent troops to the South to enforce civil law in 1963.
President Bush could easily have sent in the military if he had declared New Orleans to be in a state of insurrection. But Bush preferred to have Governor Blanco follow the script of earlier examples by surrendering her authority to the federal government. Bush worried that if he invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807, (coupled with the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878) against Blanco’s protests, he would be seen as a male Republican chauvinist pig usurping a woman’s authority. This certainly would have created an outcry from the press as well as the public, making matters worse. Southern States, since before the Civil War, have always been sensitive about state’s rights, and as President Bush said, they “could unleash holy hell.”
Bush kept urging Governor Blanco, but she found it difficult to allow federal troops to take over. No doubt the White House was considering other measures. Press Secretary Scott McClellan openly said a repeal or revision of the law should be considered. After nearly a week of lawlessness and three days of urgings from the president, the governor relented. From the Rose Garden, the president announced that he was sending more than 7,000 active-duty troops to New Orleans.
The Insurrection Act of 1807 was created from the treasonous intentions of Aaron Burr. Burr, having served as vice president under President Jefferson, experienced several political defeats, and after killing Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel, he became disenchanted with American politics. Leaving Washington, he traveled into the western territories and concocted a scheme to take Texas and Mexico, lead the states into secession, and install himself as ruler of the new republic. President Jefferson had heard the rumor and refused to believe it possible of Burr. In October 1806, he issued a proclamation denouncing his former vice president. Burr was arrested for treason in New Orleans in January 1807. Congress passed the Insurrection Act as a set of laws stipulating the president’s ability to use troops to put down lawlessness in the United States — “to suppress, in a state, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination or conspiracy.”
President Lincoln used the Insurrection Act as credence for sending the federal military against the Southern states in 1861. More than 50 years after the 1807 bill was passed and 12 years after the Civil War, Southern representatives and senators returned to Washington with full intent to change the law. Still fuming over 10 years of military occupation, on June 18, 1878, they tightened the restrictions and imposed a two-year sentence and $10,00o fine for violators. Clearly, what the Southern congressmen intended was to prevent abuse of the military by the president.
Following Katrina, in the fall of 2006, Congress amended the Insurrection Act to allow the president to deploy federal troops during natural disasters. Then, in 2008, the amendment was repealed in a 591-page bill introduced by John Warner as the National Defense Authorization Act. Though every governor voiced their opposition, the bill passed into law.
Having studied the Reconstruction Era, I have a real appreciation for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D) who warned, “We certainly do not need to make it easier for presidents to declare martial law … using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy.”
As this short review of only a couple of laws shows, decision-making for an elected official can be extremely complex because of laws dating from a previous era. Public opinion must be considered, and we know as the Scriptures teach, man is as unstable as water. Over the years, the public has displayed a wide range of fickle emotions concerning this set of laws as well as others. What is public outcry one day forgotten the next, replaced by a new outcry.
Every time I hear a complaint against a law or elected official, I think of the four statues on Dave Lyle Boulevard in Rock Hill. When the city decided to finance the project, there was a tremendous outcry from the citizens of the city over wasted money, the neglected needs of the poor, the need for road improvements, and a multitude of other issues. Today, traffic whizzes by, carrying thousands of people past them, and the statues are given only a fleeting glance.
It’s kinda like being a puppet. Just hang around and someone will jerk your chain.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
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