Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a military veteran who is close to President Trump and who is sometimes mentioned as a future US defense secretary, wrote an op-ed Wednesday in the New York Times under the headline, “Send in the Troops’ in which he made the case that federal troops are needed to stamp out “anarchy” caused by the protests sweeping the United States that Cotton claimed recalls “the widespread violence of the 1960s.”
But this comparison is off base. The riots that racked US cities in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. were of a far deadlier and more destructive nature than the occasionally violent protests we have seen during the past week. In 1968, more more than 40 were killed, according to the Atlantic.
I write only three blocks away from 14th Street NW in Washington DC, a key commercial corridor, much of which went up in flames during the 1968 riots. During the four days of riots in Washington, more than 1,000 fires were set, 8,000 people were arrested, 13 people were killed, and more than 900 businesses were damaged. It took more than three decades before 14th Street ever really fully recovered.
Nothing remotely close to this is happening now in Washington where there certainly has been some unforgivable vandalism during the past week, but the demonstrations have been largely peaceful affairs and that is true for many of the protests around the country.
So far there have been some dozen deaths that may be linked to the protests that have spread across the United States over the killing of George Floyd. That is a dozen too many deaths, but would bringing in federal troops really help solve this issue?
For good reason, federal troops are only brought in as a last resort to quell violence in the United States since they generally are not trained in crowd control nor in law enforcement techniques, duties that are better performed by the police, sometimes supported by National Guard units under the order of each states’ governor.
That is why US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, himself a retired US Army officer, publicly said from the podium in the Pentagon press briefing room on Wednesday, “The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
In saying this, Esper publicly contradicted President Donald Trump, who has suggested deploying federal troops to US cities, which would require invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 which is intended to quell public unrest.
In his op-ed, Cotton claims that “the rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd, whose bereaved relatives have condemned violence. On the contrary, nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”
Despite the Arkansas senator’s assertions, no evidence has emerged that cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa are organizing the vast nationwide protests that at times turn violent. Instead the protesters are mostly ordinary young people fed up with police brutality directed against black Americans, and many of the protests are also aimed at the fecklessness of Trump himself in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as of all the racial inequities that continue to plague the United States.
Cotton goes on to assert that “…Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson called out the military to disperse mobs that prevented school desegregation.” This is quite disingenuous because it points to cases where governors in the 1950 and 1960s for political reasons refused to enforce federal desegregation laws and presidents had to step in to enforce them. But in the case of the current protests, governors are mobilizing law enforcement and National Guard units to respond to them.
Cotton’s op-ed has caused a storm of protest inside the New York Times precisely because of its factual inaccuracies and historical analogies that make scant sense. Reporting by the Times had already debunked the notion that the protests were being led by Antifa and some journalists working at the newspaper said that Cotton’s arguments about sending in the troops could even put the lives of black New York Times staff members in danger.
Late Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Times said the Cotton op-ed was published after a “rushed editorial process” and “did not meet our standards.”