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A Primer On “Martial Law”
Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr.
August 31, 2009
It is difficult these days not to come upon some pessimistic patriotic commentator expressing the fear that something called “martial law” may soon be imposed on this country, as the General Government’s response to a new “terrorist attack”, or to the economic and social chaos arising out of a collapse of the monetary and banking systems, or to some other dire event that frightens hapless Americans into trading a sure and certain loss of their liberties for a dollop of conjectural safety.
|Whether or not the military personnel are following some specific “code of military law”, “martial law” in this sense purports to set aside the Constitution and all of the other “Laws of the Union” and to substitute therefore the orders of officers in the Armed Forces.|
An optimistic patriot might scoff at such fears. But both pessimists and optimists typically share the same implicit first premise: namely, that the form of “martial law” they have in mind is legitimate. Most of the time, this is a rather glaring and dangerous error.
In legal analysis, definitions of terms make all the difference. And “martial law” can be defined in at least four ways:
·First, the term could denote the law that Congress may enact for governance of the Armed Forces and “the Militia of the several States”. This kind of “martial law” is plainly legitimate, because the Constitution delegates to Congress the powers “[t]o make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces” and “[t]o provide * * * for governing such Part of the[ Militia of the several States] as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States, respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress”. [U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cls. 14 and 16.] With respect to “the land and naval Forces” such “martial law” applies at all times. With respect to the Militia, it applies only when the latter have been “call[ed] forth * * * to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”. [U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 15.] With respect to everyone else, though, it applies not at all. This absolute separation the Fifth Amendment confirms: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger”. “Martial law” (in this first sense), which may (but need not necessarily) dispense with “Grand Jur[ies]”, applies only to “the land and naval forces” and to the Militia in time of “War” (“repel[ling] Invasions”) or “public danger” (“execut[ing] the Laws of the Union” and “suppress[ing] Insurrections”), and to no one else.
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