(Editorial note: Retired Admiral Mike Mullen served the United States as the seventeenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Mullen penned “I Cannot Remain Silent” in response to Donald J. Trump’s deployment of military force against peaceful protesters in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2020. “I Cannot Remain Silent” is republished herein under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act—DMCA.)
I Cannot Remain Silent
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
There was little good in the stunt.
While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage.
As a white man, I cannot claim perfect understanding of the fear and anger that African Americans feel today. But as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.
We must, as citizens, address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community. We must, as citizens, support and defend the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.
And neither of these pursuits will be made easier or safer by an overly aggressive use of our military, active duty or National Guard. The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws. The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.
I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.
Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.
Even in the midst of the carnage we are witnessing, we must endeavor to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighborhoods. They are not “battle spaces” to be dominated, and must never become so.
We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.
Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarized; too many military missions have become politicized.
This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.