Threatening to send U.S. federal troops into American cities to put down domestic violence is fraught with danger from a sound public policy perspective, not to mention the political. For presidents, it’s a thin wire to walk. Deploying federal forces may, however, be the right thing to do. In a Rose Garden speech, President Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to stop the rioting, burning, and looting in American cities if the governors of the impacted states were unable or unwilling to keep their citizens’ lives and property safe.
It’s obvious American lives and property in cities where violence is rampant are not safe. No American could have missed the ravenous and gratuitous violence that has broken out across the U.S. As Liberty Nation’s Mark Angelides explained, there continues to be civil chaos, including arson, looting, and criminal violence against the police and innocent bystanders. The president did the right thing in explaining to the American people what his intentions are. President Trump’s exact words from the Rose Garden speech to the nation were:
“Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
While the sounds of the words where still reverberating, the news media went into full outrage mode, with headlines like Business Insider’s “Trump is talking about using tanks to quell the George Floyd protests, but the Pentagon is getting cold feet.” The word “tanks” didn’t appear in President Trump’s words, and he was clearly talking about the “violence” that requires protecting “life and property” of the citizens, not those peacefully protesting over the murder of George Floyd. He also qualified the need for troops by placing on the country’s governors the obligation to provide their citizens protection and put down the lawlessness before federal action.
The president seemed to be very measured in his words, investing the responsibility for handling the civil violence with the states. He charged them to deal with the problem while also recommending that, when rioters are overwhelming local police department, governors deploy their National Guard forces. He put the accountability with the governors and mayors to fix the problem. If a governor refuses to take action, only then will federal troops be considered. The president’s statement is entirely consistent with the conditions necessary for invoking 10 U.S. Code § 253 which reads in full:
“The President, by using the militia or the armed forces, or both, or by any other means, shall take such measures as he considers necessary to suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy, if it—
(1) so hinders the execution of the laws of that State, and of the United States within the State, that any part or class of its people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution and secured by law, and the constituted authorities of that State are unable, fail, or refuse (emphasis the author’s) to protect that right, privilege, or immunity, or to give that protection…”
Calling on U.S. armed forces to come to the aid of states and cities is not uncommon throughout American history. From 1808 through 1992, federal troops have been called up nearly 20 times, both with and without states’ requests. The online journal The Resurgent recently pointed out that presidents from both political parties have seen fit to send federal troops to combat riots. In the 1950s and 1960s, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and sent active-duty military units like the 101st Airborne Division to preserve black Americans’ civil rights and to put down riots.
President Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Chicago, IL, on April 7, 1968, to put down uprisings in the wake of the MLK assassination. The United Press International photograph published in the New York Times illustrates the level of violence with soldiers crouching behind jeeps for protection from the snipers shooting at them. President George H. W. Bush deployed forces to Los Angeles, CA, to put down the rioting following the Rodney King court verdict freeing the police officers who severely beat Mr. King.
Several governors have activated their state’s National Guard units to bolster the local police. As local television images show, it appeared to be too late to stop much of the carnage but in time to provide needed support to local authorities. Richard Sisk’s “Army Vet Lawmaker: Invoke Insurrection Act, Deploy Active-Duty Troops to Riots” includes the accompanying Associated Press photograph that shows California National Guard troops patrolling downtown Los Angeles, CA.
When it comes to deploying federal soldiers, President Trump is not alone in his inclination to consider the option. Sisk also reports that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) suggested the president send some combat units as a “show of force” to demonstrate “zero tolerance for this destruction.”
Activating Federal soldiers to confront fellow citizens is never easy, either for the soldiers involved or the Defense Department leadership. It is not surprising that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in a recent press conference from the Pentagon said very plainly, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” Secretary Esper’s sentiment is consistent with most military senior leadership, who are reluctant to put soldiers in harm’s way, whether overseas on the field of combat or facing down domestic terrorism. As we have seen so often, what is not “one of those situations now” can quickly become one of those situations, and the Insurrection Act of 1807 can be useful – even crucial – in saving Americans’ property, livelihoods, and yes, their very lives.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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