Troops in Washington Are Disaster Waiting to Happen

There are plenty of malevolent actors here and abroad who would relish seeing martial law declared, writes James Bovard.

National Guard at the Capitol building on Jan. 12, in preparation for the inauguration of Joe Biden. (U.S. Air National Guard , Matt Hecht)

By James Bovard
Mises Wire 

“Tyranny in form is the first step towards tyranny in substance,” warned Sen. John Taylor 200 years ago in his forgotten classic, Tyranny Unmasked. As the massive National Guard troop deployment in Washington enters its second month, much of the media and many members of Congress are thrilled that it will extend until at least mid-March. But Americans would be wise to recognize the growing perils of the militarization of American political disputes.

The military occupation of Washington was prompted by the Jan. 6 clashes at the Capitol between Trump supporters and law enforcement, in which three people (including one Capitol policeman) died as a result of the violence. Roughly 800 protesters and others unlawfully entered the Capitol, though many of them entered nonviolently through open doors and most left without incident hours later.

The federal government responded by deploying 25,000 National Guard troops to prevent problems during President Joe Biden’s swearing-in — the first inauguration since 1865 featuring the capital city packed with armed soldiers. Protests were almost completely banned in Washington for the inauguration.

Instead of ending after the muted inauguration celebration, the troop deployment was extended for the Senate impeachment trial.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) declared, “So long as Donald Trump is empowered by Senate Republicans, there is still the chance that he is going to incite another attempt at the Capitol.”

But the Senate vote on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) motion labeling the trial as unconstitutional signaled that the trial will be anticlimactic because Trump is unlikely to be convicted. The actual trial may be little more than a series of pratfalls, alternating between histrionic Democratic House members and wild-swinging, table-pounding Trump lawyers. A pointless deluge of political vitriol will make a mockery of Biden’s calls for national unity.

Deployment Extended

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden surprises members of the National Guard with chocolate chip cookies on Jan. 22 and thanked them for their service. (White House, Lawrence Jackson)

Then the troop deployment was extended into at least mid-March because of unidentified threats made to members of Congress. Acting Army Secretary John Whitley announced last week:

“There are several upcoming events—we don’t know what they are—over the next several weeks, and they’re concerned that there could be situations where there are lawful protests, First Amendment–protected protests, that could either be used by malicious actors, or other problems that could emerge.”

“We don’t know what they are” but somebody heard something somewhere, so the military deployment will continue. Threats have occurred in waves toward members of Congress at least since the farm crisis of the 1980s, but prior menacing did not result in the occupation of the capital city.

Perpetuating the troop deployment is also being justified by melodramatic revisionism. In congressional testimony last week, Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman described the Jan. 6 clash at the Capitol as “a terrorist attack by tens of thousands of insurrectionists.”

Apparently, anyone who tromped from the scene of Trump’s ludicrous “I won by a landslide” spiel to the Capitol was a terrorist, or at least an “insurrectionist” (which is simply “terrorist” spelled with more letters). Is “walking on the Mall with bad thoughts” sufficient to get classified as a terrorist in the Biden era? 

Kent State 

Placing thousands of troops on the streets of the nation’s capital could be a ticking time bomb. The longer the National Guard is deployed in Washington, the greater the peril of a Kent State–caliber catastrophe. The Ohio National Guard’s volley of fire in 1970 that killed four students and wounded nine others was a defining moment for the Vietnam era. 

Forty years later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an investigation of the Kent State shooting based on new analyses of audio recordings from the scene. The Plain Dealer concluded that an FBI informant who was photographing student protestors fired four shots from his .38-caliber revolver after students began threatening him. That gunfire started barely a minute before the Ohio National Guard opened fire. Gunshots from the FBI informant apparently spooked guard commanders into believing they were taking sniper fire, spurring the order to shoot students.

The informant denied having fired, but witnesses testified differently. (The FBI hustled the informant from the scene and he later became an undercover narcotics cop in Washington, D.C.) Though there is no evidence that the FBI sought to provoke carnage at Kent State, FBI agents involved in COINTELPRO (the Counterintelligence Program) in the 1960s and 1970s boasted of “false flag” operations which provoked killings.

Students at Kent State fleeing gunfire. (U.S. National Archives)

If some malicious group wanted to plunge this nation into chaos and fear, National Guard troops at a checkpoint would be an easy target — at least for the first moments after they were fired upon (most of the troops do not have ammo magazines in their rifles). The sweeping reaction to Jan. 6 might be far surpassed if troops are gunned down regardless of whether the culprits were right-wing extremists, Antifa, or foreign infiltrators. An attack on the troops would likely perpetuate the military occupation and potentially spur Biden to declare martial law.

Last spring, when riots erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, President Donald Trump warned that “the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests.” Many activists were justifiably appalled at the specter of Trump seizing dictatorial power over areas wracked by violent protests. But the danger remains regardless of who is president.

Martial law is the ultimate revocation of constitutional rights: anyone who disobeys soldiers’ orders can be shot. There are plenty of malevolent actors here and abroad who would relish seeing martial law declared in Washington, the paramount disgrace for the world’s proudest democracy.

Unfortunately, Biden would have plenty of support initially if he proclaimed that violence in Washington required him to declare martial law. As the Washington Post noted in 2018, a public opinion poll showed that 25 percent of Americans believed “a military takeover was justified if there were widespread corruption or crime.” The Journal of Democracy reported that polls showed that only 19 percent of Millennials in the US believed that it would be illegitimate “in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job.” But trusting to military rule for Millennial wish fulfillment would be the biggest folly of them all. Support for martial law is the ultimate proof of declining political literacy in this nation.

Regardless of the risks, some politicians are clinging to the presence of the troops in Washington like Linus clutching his “security blanket” in a Peanuts cartoon. Will we now see regular alarms from a long series of politicians and political appointees working to “keep up the fear”?

History is littered with stories of nations scourged by “temporary” martial law that perpetuated itself. Anyone who believes America is immune should recall Senator Taylor’s 1821 warning against presuming “our good theoretical system of government is a sufficient security against actual tyranny.”

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including 2012’s Public Policy Hooligan, and 2006’s Attention Deficit Democracy. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, and many other publications. Read his blog. Send him email.

This article is from Mises Wire 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “Troops in Washington Are Disaster Waiting to Happen

  1. Peter
    February 13, 2021 at 15:30

    So what is the likelyhood of a Tiananmen Square styled disaster in Washington DC?

    To be clear: I think its a genuine bad idea to deploy military forces against civilians. Unless you want to kill a lot of own.

  2. Punkyboy
    February 13, 2021 at 13:29

    Basically a reasoned and informative article, compared to some of the other explanations out there for the military presence in DC. The basic premise is correct: This is a dangerous precedent at any time, but considering the mood of the country right now makes it even more so. The long-standing tactic of keeping us divided along political and philosophical lines in order to deflect attention from what’s going on behind the scenes, aided by a captured and histrionic mainstream media, is working all too well right now. This could go south in a hurry. And maybe that’s the plan.

  3. Jeff Harrison
    February 13, 2021 at 12:56

    We have already lost our republic. We are now an oligarchy and our overlords are just beginning to enforce their rules. Soon elections will no longer be necessary. Just ask Karl Rove…..

  4. Tony Vorsteveld
    February 13, 2021 at 12:24

    The above picture of the First Lady handing out cookies reminds of Victoria Nuland doing the same in The Ukraine.

  5. February 13, 2021 at 08:04

    “Troops in Washington Are Disaster Waiting to Happen”

    No more than they are in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Latvia, Poland, and dozens of other places.

    The military, always and everywhere, represents exactly the opposite of good government, human and democratic values, and rule of law.

  6. John Drake
    February 12, 2021 at 17:25

    Comparison with Kent State is irrelevant. First of all Nixon had secretly encouraged various authorities to clamp down-even violently- on the anti war protests he despised. He even elicited NY construction union members to beat up an anti war protest near Wall Street. Governor Rhodes was a staunch, and very right wing, supporter of Nixon; and made various statements of intolerance toward protests. Cointelpro was Nixon’s war against the anti war; he and Hoover created the milieu is which that happened.

    On the other hand, the reference to Terry Norman is a new wrinkle I didn’t know about. Did he fire four rounds that might have sounded threatening to the guard??

    Secondly the Ohio National Guard always goes into action loaded; people in Ohio know they can be deadly. They had been on duty for months because of a Teamster’s strike so were not in a particularly good mood. Back then there was full employment in well paying jobs; which they were missing while on Guard duty.

    Ironically many National Guard in that era had joined to avoid real combat in Vietnam-this was during the period of the draft. John Bolton was an example of this and he admitted it; and so was W. Bush. The Vietnam Vets who were protesting the war despised them as cowards.

    On the other hand I agree the occupation is a little excessive. DC has the Park Police, the Capitol police and the city police and if necessary surrounding State police. They routinely handle huge demonstrations; though none have been generally violent. The only exception was a spontaneous riot for four days in 1968 after MLK’s assassination.

    With adequate intel and warning, they should be able to handle say a return of the Proud Boys or their lot. With adequate preparation they probably could have thwarted the Capitol riot. I also suspect the 200 or so arrests so far are having a chilling effect on future violence.

    • robert e williamson jr
      February 13, 2021 at 17:48

      With all due respect John anyone who didn’t think trouble was brewing is daft. This entire episode reeks of the influence of one Donald J Trump and his crazy supporters.

      How much warning did anyone need? Someone dropped the ball with respect to security and now Homeland Security will grab even more authority, authority it already had but didn’t use. Exactly as happened before 911.

      And 200 arrests will not be having a chilling effect on future violence. Now 150 or 200 35 year sentences might.

      What has happened will give a green light to more violence and this time it likely will be distributed from both sides in the fracas.

      Cointelpro. I see no mention of the CIA’s involvement with Cointelpro in what you wrote. I’m thinking there are more that on wrinkle you may have missed.

      The real costs of the war were enormous and when the Ohio National Guard opened fire that day everyone should have taken notice. America eats it’s own young overseas and on home soil and for what?

      Give me a break!

  7. Truth first
    February 12, 2021 at 15:26

    “the world’s proudest democracy.” Huhhhh, you sure about that??

    How about the world’s proudest plutocracy?

  8. John Smith
    February 12, 2021 at 13:03

    “The world’s proudest democracy”? Please. Lay off the Kool-Aid.

    • Jonny James
      February 12, 2021 at 15:50

      I agree. Even Jimmy said it some years ago. With all due respect, the author seems a bit naive and euphemistic here.


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