I’m with everybody—New York Times staffers included—who are furious with Cotton for demanding that our own military invade U.S. cities. But I also feel that we owe Cotton a debt of gratitude for calling our deeper attention to this archaic law, whose basic bones were legislated more than two centuries ago, that makes it legal for presidents to usurp our freedom based on their fancy. According to the Insurrection Act’s section 332, presidents can dispatch federal troops to American cities over the objections of their governors when conditions “make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States.”
Presidents don’t need such broad, godlike powers to help maintain civil order. For one thing, local police, sheriffs, state patrols and state national guards almost always possess the necessary force to contain riots and protect public safety. When governors lack such force and sense things are out of control, other portions of the act allow them to request federal troops, as Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson did during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Finally, the military neither desires the role of occupying force, as retired Marine Corps general James Mattis reminded us Wednesday, nor is it trained in the techniques of law enforcement. So why not sunset section 332? By removing the arrow from the president’s quiver, we can prevent President Donald Trump from ever threatening us with federal troops again (as he did Monday) and block any future president (Cotton appears to have presidential aspirations) from brandishing it.
Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center, who disagrees with the Times’ editorial decision to publish the Cotton piece, makes the separate point that the short-term effect of its publication seems to have undone Cotton’s ambitions to implement the act.