They fight “in the air, on land and sea.” They train to protect and to kill. They are the United States Marines. But should their job include drug surveillance on the U.S.-Mexican border? That is the question many are asking after the shooting death of a young Texas goat herder in May.
Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr., 18, was described by friends as hard-working and well-liked. He helped herd goats as part of a church project and carried a rifle to protect them. Sometimes he shot at targets. On May 20, however, the teenager was shot and killed when he ran afoul of a heavily-camouflaged Marine unit assigned to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. The unit was part of a drug-surveillance team working in cooperation with the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Border Patrol.
The Marines claimed they fired in self-defense. Others believe the young man was target-practicing and did not see the soldiers. A West Texas grand jury declined to indict the Marines for murder, since the soldiers appeared to be following the rules of engagement. Yet, many still wonder what really happened on that sad afternoon south of El Paso.
For many Americans, this tragic mix-up is yet another example of government power over-stepping its bounds. Whether or not Hernandez did fire at the soldiers, the question remains: should the Marines have been there at all?
The most obvious reason to refrain from using military personnel for missions on American soil is that the military forces are trained for combat. The Marines may well have been operating by their training for combat situations when they fired on Hernandez. However, the country around Redford, Texas is not a combat zone. The use of combat forces for non-combat situations leaves a large margin for error. One official admitted that the tragedy might not have occurred if the border had been patrolled by civilian law enforcement agencies.
The increasing use of military personnel and/or camouflaged special agents or storm-troopers also frightens innocent people. It is one thing to have an army defend a country. It is something else to use the military against fellow citizens. As a result of incidents such as the Texas shooting, many Americans feel threatened by their government – not protected. According to polls conducted shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, between 39 and 52 percent of Americans believed the federal government had become so powerful it was a threat to freedom.
The United States is one of the few nations whose politicians are elected by the people to be public servants. Bound by the Constitution, American officials have limited power to be used for the good of the people they represent. When this power is used to strike fear into law-abiding American citizens, it is misused.
Unfortunately, one need look no further than the 20th century for examples of governments that used violence to rule. As a result, millions of people were tortured, maimed and murdered during the regimes of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, Hitler and others. These attempts to rule by ruthless force brought even greater violence and terror than the governments they replaced.
No one doubts the need for security or for drug prevention. Before we turn to our military for internal protection, though, we need to decide where to draw the line. Do we really want martial law to assure our security?
Before we trade our freedom for security, we need to take a long, close look at the cost.
John W. Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, VA. Copyright c 1997 The Rutherford Institute, all rights reserved.