I caught the President's news conference clips today and he again mentioned a potentially expanded role for the military in domestic affairs--this time with respect to the potential ability of the military to enforce quarantines of cities or regions IN THE UNITED STATES in the event of an outbreak of Avian Flu (H5N1 flu in a human to human transmission form). The president's remarks raise two troubling issues for me.
While quarantine has a long and honorable role in public health, it is at best a 19th century concept that MAY be less applicable in the 21st century. Make no mistake--it works, but it is draconian in its fullest form. The Canadian experience with SARS has some graphic lessons about the ability of a free society with a history or personal liberty to enforce a quarantine. Personal mobility also cuts against our ability to employ this particular public health weapon.
The issue of larger importance to me, is an increasing interest in employing the regular military forces of the nation to effect domestic ends. Tacitus' Annals speak to the impact of the thirteenth legion's incursion into Roman home territory and the subsequent rise of Praetorianism during the early empire. More recently Oliver Cromwell's protectorate and his use of the roundhead army speaks to the potential for mischief. In fact, I think it was the experience of the Protectorate that shaped our colonial aversion to a standing army--Locke, Hobbes, and Harrington all talk to the issue in their writings.
In the aftermath of Katrina, and with the potential for a flu pandemic within the coming 12 months, I sense there is some public support for the domestic use of our federal forces--this, to me, is a serious policy question that deserves a very careful and reasoned discussion that has thus far been lacking.
I will go through more detailed arguments in future posts, but wanted to put this topic on the table for discussion.
Press Conference Transcript