(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans thinks that hurricanes Katrina and Rita may contribute to the significant erosion of more than just our coastlines.
(SEAMANS) The London bombings sent a wave of apprehension through our security forces here at home. That terrorism tragedy raised the question whether our own first responders under the direction of FEMA, and its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, were really ready to handle the chaos of catastrophe caused by a terrorist attack or a national disaster. Katrina gave us the answer. Law and order and emergency services, the very core of community, broke down completely. It was a worst case scenario. The question now is how to prepare an effective response.
In recent days President Bush has signaled Congress to consider allowing our federal military forces to, in effect, take over the response to national disasters. The Pentagon already has worked up a plan to train quick-reaction troops to handle a terrorist attack here at home. That force could also handle a natural disaster like Katrina more efficiently than local responders because they would always be ready to go with the necessary manpower, communications and supplies immediately available.
One of our regular troops’ most important functions would be to maintain law and order. For that they would need policing powers to seek out and arrest looters and other lawbreakers. A disaster response would be directed by our top generals instead of the civilian Department of Homeland Security. But that idea poses a problem that could lead to a historic debate over whether the army should be given the authority to act as a national police force in a domestic emergency.
The historical record shows that our citizenry has been reluctant to trust the regular armed forces to act as police here at home. That feeling dates from 1878, when the Posse Comitatus Act banned the arrest of civilians by federal troops to stop abuses in the South after the Civil War. President Bush now has government lawyers examining various stratagems to legally bypass Posse Comitatus or to amend the law so regular army troops can arrest lawbreakers in disaster situations. We can expect Bush to push his proposal more and more in public statements as part of his effort to repair his leadership image.
Also, we can expect a negative reaction from some governors who might see a profound states’ rights issue if they are to lose control of their National Guard troops in a domestic emergency. And you can bet that some civil libertarians will oppose what they will consider the loss of yet another civil right regardless of the reason.
Posse Comitatus literally means the force of the country. A New York Times editorial called that force an important bulwark of civilian supremacy and a barrier to the erosion of basic civil liberties. Changing it, the Times said, is not a step to be taken lightly.
This is Bill Seamans.
Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.