George W. Bush and George Washington have more in common than a first name. Both have shown themselves open to the use of American military forces – the people who are supposed to defend us from outside foes – for domestic duties.
Washington sent American troops to deal with rowdy Pennsylvania farmers during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. It ended the rebellion, but it wasn’t popular. If we’d had polls then, Washington’s approval ratings would have sunk.
More recently, Bush alerted Congress to be thinking about legislation that would authorize him to dispatch U.S. military personnel to enforce local civil control steps such as quarantine measures in the event of a flu pandemic.
The concept of an avian flu outbreak is on a lot of minds these days. Even though the virus behind the outbreak that is killing thousands of birds in certain Asian nations has been known since 1961, public health officials are concerned that sooner or later, it will spread easily among humans. If that happens, it would take months to develop a vaccine and, judging by history, millions of people would die.
The classic example is the Spanish flu that killed an estimated 500,000 Americans in 1918, a year when the population of the United States actually declined. Some 50 million may have died worldwide. Lesser outbreaks claimed 70,000 Americans in 1957-58 (Asian flu) and 34,000 more in 1968-69 (Hong Kong flu).
In his comments last week, the president foresaw that another pandemic might demand responses that include the control of travel and the use of schools, workplaces and other public facilities and gatherings. In such a situation, the president should have the authority to deploy the armed forces. He didn’t say “martial law,” but the image was hard to ignore.
Aside from philosophical worries about using the armed forces for local police functions, spreading soldiers around the nation to enforce quarantines would limit the number available for duty in Iraq, where military leaders are saying a U.S. presence will be needed longer than was thought only a few months ago. At home, meanwhile, the armed forces are unable to meet recruitment goals.
At the same time, the American College of Emergency Physicians warns that the nation’s hospitals don’t have the capacity to handle a pandemic. That, rather than a military response, is where the president’s attention should be fixed.
Bush was on a more encouraging track Friday when he sat down with pharmaceutical industry leaders to talk about development of preventive vaccines and treatment medications.
In the event of a pandemic, the best role for the federal government would be to cooperate with the health-care industry and to make sure state and local public health systems have the resources they need to do their job. Rather than planning a troop deployment, the White House should be finding ways to restore some of the funding that has been diverted since 9/11 from the agencies that have the best personnel and experience for responding to influenza outbreaks.
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