David and PolitiFact on the Same Wavelength
It’s funny what different people find to be of interest in political documents. When I read the letter that David Cicilline sent to Monique regarding his vote against an amendment to Congressional legislation intended to ease rules of engagement restrictions for U.S. troops, what struck me were the careful words related to the right to bear arms (emphasis added):
I joined 141 other Democrats and 18 Republicans in voting against this amendment because it does nothing to change existing rules of engagement for American service members. Our men and women in uniform already possess the right to bear arms whenever they are in harm’s way. Furthermore, when they are instructed on the rules of engagement, our troops are explicitly told that nothing prevents them from using deadly force to defend themselves. That’s why a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees all American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Wall Street Journal that H.AMDT. 318 “would likely not change a thing” about existing policy for the Armed Forces.
When are America’s military personnel considered to be “in harm’s way”? The amendment, itself, seems a little more broad:
The Secretary of Defense shall ensure that the rules of engagement applicable to members of the Armed Forces assigned to duty in any hostile fire area designated for purposes of section 310 or 351 (a) (1) of title 37, Unites States Code — (1) fully protect the members’ right to bear arms; and (2) authorize the members to fully defend themselves from hostile actions.
That seems to me to ensure a right to bear arms for troops “assigned to duty” in a particular region, whether or not they happen to be within the “hostile fire area.” In other words, a soldier with a little free time in Kabul would take the Second Amendment with him, even though he’s not on the battlefield.
For its part, PolitiFact was more interested in the question of whether the amendment would actually change rules of engagement policy. So, the reporters turned to three military experts, at least one of whom appeared to be sufficiently ignorant of the subject as to address language that doesn’t even appear in the amendment:
Victor Hansen, a professor at New England Law in Boston, described the language in Mica’s amendment — “to proactively defend” — as “loaded” and so broad that it was impossible to define for a practical purpose.
In the amendment that PolitiFact cites in the article, I see the language “fully defend.” Happily, the Congressional record agrees with my eyes and not the experts.
Reading a little farther down, where PolitiFact paraphrases the question that it posed to U.S. Major Jason Waggoner, one gets the impression that “proactive” is actually the journalist’s word. And, indeed, it appears ultimately to come from the title that Monique gave to her post, “Proactively Defending Himself: The Congressman from the First District Responds.”
For the record, I doubt anybody disputes the rights of elected officials to “proactively defend” themselves against criticism. Furthermore, as wise as she is, I’m sure very few Americans would empower Monique to legislate via subject line.
What seems legitimately disputable is whether the amendment that Rep. John Mica (R, FL) proposed, and the U.S. House passed, is actually as ineffectual as Cicilline and PolitiFact claim. After all, PolitiFact’s experts characterize the language as “vague” and allude to “years of ‘arguments among lawyers’ aver what [the amendment] means.” In other words, it is defensible to argue that the amendment will have no effect, but it isn’t exactly a statement of fact. Otherwise, there would be no possibility of legal disagreement.
To be sure, checking the C-SPAN video and transcript, one can see that the two Democrats who spoke in opposition to the amendment did not do so because it would do nothing, but because it would do something. As Rep. Robert Andrews (D., NJ) explained:
I frankly agree that there are very, very few circumstances I could imagine where we would not want our troops in the field to be fully armed to their complete comfort and satisfaction level. And so it’s hard for me to imagine a circumstance where that’s not the case.
But it’s easy for me to understand a circumstance where the person in the field who is charged with the responsibility of achieving the mission and achieving maximum protection of his or her troops should have the authority to make that decision.
It’s a simple matter to produce examples of rules of engagement articles that refer to the inviolable right to self defense, as the Wall Street Journal does, in the piece that Cicilline cites, but it remains true that they can vary in some particulars from commander to commander and zone to zone. Where are troops considered to be within a hostile area? What steps must they apply to determine their own safety and the threat posed by a possible attacker? The 1999 Marine Corps Combat Manual, for example, requires “defensive tactics to neutralize the threat” if an attacker is unarmed. It seems to me highly probable that Mica’s language will have some effect on the balance of judgment of Marines who find lethal force necessary when no weapon is visible.
I’m not arguing the case for or against the amendment, here, but Cicilline’s statement that this amendment would do nothing is incomplete. The more significant question in need of research and discussion is why he voted against it. Like his Democrat colleagues, he may not have wanted to dictate minute military policy from Washington. Like PolitiFact’s experts, he may not have liked the prospect of years of litigation. But the representative makes neither point, so why was “no” his default position?
That question would be difficult for PolitiFact, with its mainstream-media resources (or even me, with a search engine and a couple of hours to squeeze in for posting on a Sunday), to answer. However, if there are so few questionable facts being flung around in political debate on welfare, employment, pensions, healthcare, and so on that PolitiFact has the space to side with Cicilline on this minor matter, then the reporters could have looked more deeply (and without leading their experts to embarrass themselves by commenting on inaccurate language).
My gut tells me that Cicilline was more concerned about how an affirmative vote on a bill using the phrase “right to bear arms” might look on some progressive tally sheet during election season than with passing superfluous legislation. I grade his letter as “half true” and PolitiFact’s judgment as “false.”