Walter E. Williams

President Bush informed the nation, during a press conference, that he might seek to use the U.S. military to quarantine parts of the nation should there be a serious outbreak of the deadly avian flu that has killed millions of chickens and 60-some people in Southeast Asia. That's the second time Bush has expressed a desire to use the military for local policing. The first was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Posse Comitatus Act (18 U.S.C. 1385) generally prohibits federal military personnel and units of the U.S. National Guard under federal authority from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States, except where expressly authorized by the U.S. Constitution or Congress.

Enacted during Reconstruction, the purpose of the Posse Comitatus Act was to severely limit the powers of the federal government to use the military for local law enforcement. Would Americans tolerate such a gigantic leap in the federalization of law enforcement? I'm guessing the answer is yes. In the name of safety, we've undergone decades of softening up to accept just about any government edict that our predecessors would have found offensive. Let's look at some of it.

 The anti-smoking movement might be the beginning of the softening up process. They started out calling for reasonable actions like no-smoking sections on airplanes. Then it progressed to no smoking on airplanes altogether, then private establishments such as restaurants and businesses. Emboldened by the timidity of smokers, in some jurisdictions there are ordinances banning smoking in outdoor places such as beaches and parks. Then there are seatbelt and helmet laws that have sometimes been zealously enforced through the use of night vision goggles. On top of this, Americans accept government edicts on where your child may ride in your car. Americans sheepishly accepted all sorts of Transportation Security Administration nonsense. In the name of security, we've allowed fingernail clippers, eyeglass screwdrivers and toy soldiers to be taken from us prior to boarding a plane.

 We've accepted federal intrusion in our financial privacy through the Bank Secrecy Act. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, says, "More than 99.999 percent of those [who] had their privacy invaded were law-abiding citizens going about their own personal financial business." Most recently there's the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision, where the court held that local governments can take a private person's house and turn it over to another private person. Politicians have learned and become comfortable with the fact that today's Americans will docilely accept just about any legalized restraint on their behavior.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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