Two events recalled a passage from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats (1865-1939) wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919 to describe the moral devastation of post-WWI Europe. The “mere anarchy” is not the laissez-faire version of contract and consent between free individuals which produces good will and prosperity. The “mere anarchy” is chaos, a Hobbesian society of all-against-all that comes in the wake of sustained violence. It is a society that guts decency, loots productivity, and rewards the worst within men.
Yeats could be describing America today. Or, at least, the America that might well be tomorrow. The center cannot hold.
The first event was a quiet one; as of yet, it is an event on paper only. On May 13th, 2013, a new rule went into effect. The US Code “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” was altered by the Department of Defense to read:
“Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances because:
(1) Such activities are necessary to prevent significant loss of life or wanton destruction of property and are necessary to restore governmental function and public order; or
(2) Duly constituted Federal, State, or local authorities are unable or decline to provide adequate protection for Federal property or Federal governmental functions.”
The Pentagon has granted itself the authority to police American streets and cities without the need for permission from the Executive or consent from local law enforcement. (Note: the arrangement could be at the behest of Obama who may wish to distance himself from military action on American soil.) Moreover, because the authority results from a change within a Department of Defense regulation, there is no clear need for Congressional approval.
There are many ways to approach the expansion of military power over domestic law enforcement.
The vagueness of the language is troubling. For example, what constitutes an “unexpected civil disturbance”? Such vagueness encourages speculation as to whether the Pentagon is preparing “to quell” social unrest. The constitutional law professor Bruce Afran commented further on the absence of definition for key terms such as “wanton destruction.” He observed “These phrases don’t have any legal meaning….It’s a grant of emergency power to the military to rule over parts of the country at their own discretion.”
The authority is unconstitutional. The military would undoubtedly point to Article IV of the US Constitution which allows the federal government to protect individual states against invasion and “domestic violence.” But specific circumstances are required: namely, “the application of the state legislature (or executive, if the legislature cannot be convened).” The new regulation grants the power to intervene even when “state, or local authorities…decline to provide adequate protection for Federal property or Federal governmental functions.”
The Posse Comitatus Act is not just merely dead; it is most sincerely dead. The 1878 law (modified several times) was intended to limit the power of the federal government to impose martial law during times of social unrest. A nation’s use of military personnel against its civilian population has long been considered a standard tool and hallmark of dictatorship.
I have a different reaction to the military’s quiet power grab: the center will not hold. The last ‘strategy’ employed by a state is raw force. The state prefers to function through an assumed legitimacy, through bribery, propaganda, deceit, or threats because it wants to create obedience, not resistance. When a state deploys the military against its own people, it means there is enough resistance to constitute a threat. It means the mask falls off the face of power.
The second event that brought Yeats’ poem to mind was Obama’s “Cronkite Moment”. On February 27th, 1968, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite expressed an on-air judgment about the war in Vietnam. He called it a stalemale in which America was “mired” and from which America should extricate itself. Cronkite was the most respected news figure in the nation. Upon hearing those words, President Lyndon Johnson allegedly declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” And that was Johnson’s base. The “Cronkite Moment” was said to have contributed heavily to Johnson’s refusal to seek reelection.
Obama’s “Cronkite Moment” came on May 13th, 2013 when Jon Stewart ripped into the President after years of being a staunch supporter. Stewart is the voice of the millennial generation, which is an essential layer of the President’s base. Indeed, a 2004 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of those between 18 to 29-years-old followed presidential campaign news through The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.
What was the proximate cause of Stewart’s rant (and subsequent ones)? The White House has been swamped by scandals from which it can no longer hide: the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS; the wiretapping of journalists; the stonewall and lies surrounding the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. A sea-change is occurring in the media and in the public response to a hideously corrupt and destructive politician. Obama is no longer getting a free pass on everything from torture to killing Americans without due process, from drone attacks on foreign civilians to presiding over the longest war in American History.
The center cannot hold; America’s political fabric is unraveling. And Obama has run low on the credibility required to launch yet another Charm Offensive.
“The Second Coming” ends with two of the most famous lines in Modernist poetry:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
These lines were written at a time when the scramble for post-war power was at its zenith. It was a world that enabled Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini to triumph because there was no center to hold them back. In the words that Yeats deleted from an early draft, “The good are wavering, while the worst prevail.”
Yeats’ “rough beast” has been viewed variously as the anti-Christ, the approach of World War II, the worst within human nature, and the advent of Judgment Day. In a sense, they are all the same interpretation.
A rough beast walks in America. Increasingly the beast is being seen for what it is. Perhaps the sight will make “the good” remember who they are and make them act accordingly, at long last. If not, the federal response to a growing public awareness is clear. The chains of command that restrain the military on American soil are being erased.
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