The Posse Comitatus Act should be obeyed
In law school they teach that “hard cases make bad law.” The Beltway Sniper is a perfect example of an exceedingly hard case. But we should not let a sniper or snipers cause us to make bad policy.
While the use of our military forces to detect and apprehend the Beltway sniper has the appeal of adding expensive technology to the manhunt, using the military to enforce civil law is a very bad idea and, as a matter of fact, it is illegal. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 makes it a criminal offense to use U.S. Military forces “to execute the laws.”
First of all, let’s compare the nature and training of our military versus that of our civilian police. Our fighting men are trained “to close with and kill or capture the enemy using fire and maneuver.” In other words, the use of overwhelming force is the first resort of the military. By contrast, civilian police are trained to use force as a last resort.
Secondly, military weaponry is, by design, enormously destructive and its use often leads to what the military euphemistically refers to as: collateral damage. Military commanders are trained to accomplish their mission of killing or capturing the enemy while doing all in their power to safeguard the lives of their troops. The safeguarding of the lives of their troops takes precedence over the lives of anyone who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the military is going about the killing and capturing of the enemy.
While we regret the loss of innocent lives in Afghanistan where our troops are tracking down al Qaeda terrorist or, as in Bosnia, where our troops may get caught in a cross-fire, the Moms of America want their military sons and daughters protected and if that means collateral damage, so be it.
The Arab suicide bombers threaten Israel’s existence, so the Defense Force (IDF) must root out and destroy every last cell and operative of the Arab terrorist groups. Bottom line: the IDF is reacting to an invasion and the use of overwhelming military forces is warranted. The Beltway Sniper is not a threat to our national existence.
That said, look at the collateral damage the IDF is causing. Almost every day the use of tanks and the firing of helicopter-launched missiles into buildings kill Arab children. Yes, the IDF finds the remains of some terrorist leaders in the rubble, but out at the fringe of the target site stand those mourning the death of a father, mother or child who lived (and died) nearby.
In clearing a room, we teach our soldiers to toss a hand grenade in ahead of them. We teach that because our doctrine is that the lives of our soldiers are more precious than that of anyone who “might” be in a position to do them harm. A hand grenade is an equal-opportunity killer. It does not discriminate between those who will harm our soldiers and the innocent who are unfortunate enough to be in the same room with the enemy when that grenade rolls to a stop and explodes.
The Beltway sniper is a precision killer. He or she or they need to be hunted with precision means and taken out with precision weapons. The military is too blunt an instrument to be turned loose in an American civilian urban environment. No doubt certain military helicopters could spot a vehicle of a certain description and blow it to bits with a single missile. But nearby vehicles will be blow up as well. And, what if they fire on the wrong vehicle to start with?
Even the loaning of military equipment has its hazards. The military loaned flame-thrower tanks to civilian law enforcement at Waco. Twenty-seven children and at least 53 adults were incinerated. The Posse Comitatus Act is well founded and it should not be violated.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and a retired military officer who served two tours in Vietnam, is the co-author of The Granby Conspiracy by William Penn – a novel about a terrorist attack on the vital water storage reservoirs in the Colorado high country.
©2002. William Hamilton.