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Military Should Not Lead Disaster Response


The Pentagon is expected soon to announce proposals for giving the military a prominent role during disasters in the United States. That would likely require changing the posse comitatus law, which generally makes it illegal for the military to perform law enforcement duties in this country. In the second of two commentaries on that law, Austin Bay, a colonel in the Army Reserves, says we should leave posse comitatus alone.


Unless we're talking about fighting a war, a `let the military do it' policy is bad for a democracy. President Bush has asked US Defense officials, `Is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?' The president is also debating asking the military to enforce quarantines should an epidemic occur. But being the lead agency usually involves both making plans and exercising command authority, suggesting that the Pentagon could become, by default, a national EMS, police and fire department.

Under current law, disaster preparedness and initial disaster response are the tasks of state and local governments. There are good reasons for this. Local police and leaders know the local ins and outs. Community fire departments know the escape routes and the dead ends. No national force will have this intimate and institutional knowledge. There's also a genuine constitutional issue: the division of power between federal and state authorities. And there's a good reason for that, too. It makes it harder to centralize power.

George Washington warned in his farewell address that usurping power may appear to be the instrument of good, but it is also the way free governments are destroyed. Short-term benefit must be weighed against permanent effects, which ultimately harm the democratic system. I'm not saying there's no role for the military in a disaster. I know we have the most competent, reliable and constitutionally committed professional military on the planet. What our military can do is provide what's called special asset coordination. After Katrina, communications problems plagued all emergency responders. The US military possesses extraordinarily robust communications systems and air control capabilities. It would be wise to invest in an integrated communications system that could connect all local, state and federal emergency vehicles and aircraft to NORTHCOM headquarters, and the Pentagon is the logical choice to coordinate such a project. But giving the military lead agency clout would take responsibility away from local and state governments. In the long run, that would risk eroding local and state authority. Perhaps there are lazy mayors and lackadaisical governors who wouldn't care, but anyone concerned about responsible, competent and democratic government should.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Austin Bay. He's a syndicated columnist and author of the novel "The Wrong Side of Brightness."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Austin Bay
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