On Sunday June 7th, the editor of The New York Times (NYT) editorial page, James Bennet, resigned following the publication of an op-ed called “Send In The Troops,” penned by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. In the “controversial” letter, Senator Cotton argued that President Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and send in federal troops to restore law and order in cities where rioters had overwhelmed local law enforcement. The moment it was published, executives at the Times faced a backlash from many journalists and support staff. NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg called Cotton’s piece “fascist.”
Regrettably, in a spineless act of capitulation, “leaders” at the Times all but forced Mr. Bennet out the door. Then, in a pathetic attempt to mollify their outraged employees (and some readers), the newspaper released a statement explaining where they came up short. NYT publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger released a generic statement that could have been cut and pasted from any corporate boardroom: "While this has been a painful week across the company, it has sparked urgent and important conversations.”
The Insurrection Act of 1807
The Act empowers the U.S. president to call into service the U.S. Armed Forces and the National Guard: when requested by a state's legislature, or governor if the legislature cannot be convened, to address an insurrection against that state ,to address an insurrection, in any state, which makes it impracticable to enforce the law, or to address an insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination or conspiracy, in any state, which results in the deprivation of Constitutionally-secured rights, and where the state is unable, fails, or refuses to protect said rights.
The Insurrection Act has been invoked 20 times in America’s history. On 13 occasions, federal troops were sent following formal requests by state authorities. On the other occasions (7) the sitting president did so of his own volition. The last time the Insurrection Act was invoked was in 1992, by Republican George Bush. The state of California requested federal help following the riots that occurred after the infamous Rodney King verdict. Unbeknownst to most, Bush also invoked the act in 1989. He dispatched troops to Saint Croix following civil unrest that ensued after Hurricane Hugo leveled the U.S. territory. Prior to that, the Insurrection Act was invoked four times by Democrat Lyndon Johnson to quell riots in the late 1960’s and three times by Democrat John F. Kennedy to enforce federal desegregation laws and stop rioting that stemmed from the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision. In the late 1950’s, Republican Dwight Eisenhower invoked the act to protect the Little Rock Nine. Presidents Bush and Johnson acted after local authorities requested federal assistance. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy did so without an “invitation”
Upon Further Examination
Let us breakdown, paragraph by paragraph, Senator Cotton’s op-ed piece that caused a mutiny among many Times staffers and resulted in James Bennet “resignation”.
“This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s.” TQC Take: There were indeed incidents of violence that included unprovoked attacks on law enforcement officers, law abiding citizens, businesses, and people defending their businesses. That said, because this was the opening paragraph, Senator Cotton should have made a point to draw a distinction between the majority of protesters that were peaceful, and a small minority, that were not.
“New York City suffered the worst of the riots Monday night, as Mayor Bill de Blasio stood by while Midtown Manhattan descended into lawlessness. Bands of looters roved the streets, smashing and emptying hundreds of businesses. Some even drove exotic cars; the riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.” TQC Take: We cannot say for certain what Mayor Bill de Blasio was doing that Monday. That evening, Midtown Manhattan did descend into lawlessness. Senator Cotton's description was accurate.
“Outnumbered police officers, encumbered by feckless politicians, bore the brunt of the violence. In New York State, rioters ran over officers with cars on at least three occasions. In Las Vegas, an officer is in 'grave' condition after being shot in the head by a rioter. In St. Louis, four police officers were shot as they attempted to disperse a mob throwing bricks and dumping gasoline; in a separate incident, a 77-year-old retired police captain was shot to death as he tried to stop looters from ransacking a pawnshop. This is 'somebody’s granddaddy,' a bystander screamed at the scene.” TQC Take: The incidents Mr. Cotton described happened. Whether or not law enforcement bore the brunt of the violence is debatable. On a few occasions, police officers in New York City and elsewhere used excessive force against protestors. Despite what we saw on television – peace is bad for ratings - most protesters and police showed restraint. Some politicians cowered in their defining moments; others exhibited leadership.
“Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” TQC Take: Here Mr. Cotton makes the important distinction between peaceful protesters and rioters. We think he should have done so in his lead paragraph.
“But 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. These rioters, if not subdued, not only will destroy the livelihoods of law-abiding citizens but will also take more innocent lives. Many poor communities that still bear scars from past upheavals will be set back still further.” TQC Take: George Floyd’s relatives did condemn the violence. Left wing radicals / Antifa have indeed infiltrated peaceful protests to exploit Mr. Floyd’s death. When police pullback and become “afraid” to do their jobs (properly), often poor communities do suffer disproportionately. Senator Cotton omitted the fact that right wing extremists have also hijacked Floyd’s death for their own selfish gain.
“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers. But local law enforcement in some cities desperately needs backup, while delusional politicians in other cities refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.” TQC Take: Some local police forces needed reinforcement during the worst of the rioting and looting. The national guard was called in to a few destinations. One could argue they should have been activated in others. A few politicians did not uphold their duty to keep their cities, citizens and their property safe. An overwhelming show of force would – eventually – restore law and order. However, the sight of federal troops in cities across America could potentially make a volatile situation worse in the near term. The army is not trained to perform domestic policing duties, crowd control, etc. Yes, they would regain control, but at what cost? If the answer was materially more violence than what we witnessed on the most chaotic days, while hard to explain to a concussed innocent victim nursing a broken body, our view is that the cost is too high to justify the benefit.
“The pace of looting and disorder may fluctuate from night to night, but it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority. Some governors have mobilized the National Guard, yet others refuse, and in some cases the rioters still outnumber the police and Guard combined. In these circumstances, the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military 'or any other means' in 'cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws.'" TQC Take: The Insurrection Act enables the president to order the military to restore law and order if local authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. The combination of local police and (in a few instances) the national guard were sufficient to re-establish law and order. In our view, invoking the Insurrection Act should be a last resort. Yes, we did witness scenes of lawlessness for relatively short periods of time. However, a president must be prudent and responsible. Before ordering federal troops into cities, they must allow sufficient time for local forces to regain control. Citizens are still on edge, but order has mostly been restored while peaceful protests continue.
“This venerable law, nearly as old as our republic itself, doesn’t amount to 'martial law' or the end of democracy, as some excitable critics, ignorant of both the law and our history, have comically suggested. In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to 'protect each of them from domestic violence.' Throughout our history, presidents have exercised this authority on dozens of occasions to protect law-abiding citizens from disorder. Nor does it violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which constrains the military’s role in law enforcement but expressly excepts statutes such as the Insurrection Act.” TQC Take: Mr. Cotton is correct that the Insurrection Act does not amount to the end of democracy, has been used many times before, nor does it violate the Posse Comitatus Act. However, as we stated above, the bar for invoking the Insurrection Act must be extremely high.
“For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson called out the military to disperse mobs that prevented school desegregation or threatened innocent lives and property. This happened in my own state. Gov. Orval Faubus, a racist Democrat, mobilized our National Guard in 1957 to obstruct desegregation at Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and called in the 101st Airborne in response. The failure to do so, he said, 'would be tantamount to acquiescence in anarchy.'” TQC Take: This is true. The incidents that Mr. Cotton referenced, happened.
“More recently, President George H.W. Bush ordered the Army’s Seventh Infantry and 1,500 Marines to protect Los Angeles during race riots in 1992. He acknowledged his disgust at Rodney King’s treatment — 'what I saw made me sick' — but he knew deadly rioting would only multiply the victims, of all races and from all walks of life.” TQC Take: George Bush invoked the Insurrection Act after the state of California requested help restoring law and order in Los Angeles. It should be noted though, after the riots ensued, the Los Angeles Police Department essentially abdicated their responsibility to protect and serve, and pulled out of South-Central Los Angeles.
“Not surprisingly, public opinion is on the side of law enforcement and law and order, not insurrectionists. According to a recent poll, 58 percent of registered voters, including nearly half of Democrats and 37 percent of African-Americans, would support cities’ calling in the military to 'address protests and demonstrations' that are in 'response to the death of George Floyd.' That opinion may not appear often in chic salons, but widespread support for it is fact nonetheless.” TQC Take: We cannot corroborate (or refute) this claim. But we struggle to understand why anybody would support calling in the military to address a (peaceful) protest.
“The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety. In normal times, local law enforcement can uphold public order. But in rare moments, like ours today, more is needed, even if many politicians prefer to wring their hands while the country burns.” TQC Take: In our view, parts of this paragraph are overly dramatic. Yes, there were hotspots of lawlessness, that is undeniable. But the combination of local police and in some instances the national guard proved capable of restoring order.
Senator Tom Cotton is a close advisor and trusted ally of President Trump. The “Trumpian” wing of the Republican party view Mr. Cotton, a social conservative, foreign policy hawk, and former combat veteran, as the man they foresee taking the baton from the current president and envision the Arkansas Senator, continuing to promote parts – but not all - of Mr. Trump’s agenda.
One might not agree with all the contents of Senator Cotton’s piece (we did not). One might not agree with his positions on a range of issues (we disagree with many). One might not like him personally. Was Senator Cotton’s op-ed hawkish? Yes. Were parts of his op-ed unnecessarily harsh? In a nation of safe spaces and thin skins, O.K. we will concede that. But was Tom Cotton’s op-ed arguing, among other things, that President Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act, fascist? Not even close. The reaction from The New York Times' leaders and many of its rank and file staff in response to Senator Cotton’s op-ed being published: that was not fascist either – one must take extreme care in making such a claim – but it was certainly closer to fascism than what provoked Mr. Bennet’s sacking.
We have reached a depressing point in the state of American “journalism.” Too often, when an editor at a liberal leaning newspaper musters the guts to publish a piece containing a view that is not commensurate with the majority of people who work at, or read that newspaper, they face immediate backlash. The New York Times considers itself a champion of free speech. Unfortunately, when many NYT staffers exercised their right to cry foul when a conservative op-ed was published, Times leaders cowered like scared lambs facing a pack of hungry wolves and apologized - for no good reason - for publishing it. Mr. Bennet lost his job. That stinks.
At TQC, one of our biggest gripes with some of our friends on the left is that they claim to be enlightened, inclusive, open-minded, and champions of free speech, expression and ideas…but with an important caveat: only if those ideas being put forth are commensurate with their own. Indeed, how can one consider oneself inclusive, but not encompass the views of those that think differently than they do into their thought process? How can one consider him or herself open-minded, but closed to any viewpoint that does not coincide with their own? How can one support the freedom of expression, but work to silence anybody who expresses a dissenting view, even when done so in a civil manner and underpinned with exhaustive data? Yes, a minority of conservatives (and liberals) are “racist” and or “fascist.” However, too often, a conservative or dissenting viewpoint is immediately labeled as such, when in actuality, it is simply different. We do not agree with Tom Cotton's positions on a number of issues. But he is a United States Senator. His opinion(s) matters. We respect his right to be heard. A national op-ed forum was an appropriate platform to convey his view(s).
Not everybody who works at the NYT was against James Bennet’s decision to publish Mr. Cotton’s op-ed. In an article with a comedic title, “New York Times op-eds defend Tom Cotton op-ed that forced op-ed editor out,” CNN highlighted NYT columnists Brett Stevens and Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat penned a piece called “How liberalism, and the liberal media, are changing before our eyes.” He argues the liberal left are moving (even) more left and more “liberal,” and what the ramifications will be. Stevens publicly rebuked the NYT for their handling of the Cotton fiasco. Said Mr. Stephens, "Last week's decision by this newspaper to disavow an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton is a gift to the enemies of a free press — free in the sense of one that doesn't quiver and cave in the face of an outrage mob…What kind of paper will The Times be if half the nation doesn't get to be even an occasional part of that conversation?"
We must ask ourselves, if Tom Cotton’s op-ed elicited such an apoplectic response from NYT staffers, can we rely on those same journalists to report facts, if those particular facts do not hold a liberal position in shining light? We hope so.
Steven A. Holmes has spent the better part of four decades in the newsroom. He is currently Executive Director at CNN’s Office of Standards and Practices. Prior to that, he did editorial work for the Washington Post and was a reporter and editor for the New York Times. His view: “the Times merely capitulated to internal and external pressure over an opinion piece -- a dangerous position for a newspaper that has declared itself a champion of free speech.” We agree.