When natural catastrophes, rioting, or looting overwhelm local authorities, the call usually goes out for military troops to restore the peace. But as we're seeing in the wrecked city of New Orleans, there are big differences in what soldiers are allowed to do once they get there.
More than twenty thousand members of what the U.S. Constitution calls the militia, brought in from their bases in every state, are now at work in New Orleans. These are armed National Guardsmen and women with full authority to keep order and catch criminals. Their commander-in-chief is not the president. It's Louisiana's governor.
Active-duty military troops are working alongside them on medical, rescue, and evacuation missions. They can arrest no one. Their weapons are unloaded. They carry ammunition, separately, but it may be used only if these soldiers are attacked.
A lot of history goes into the reason why: Ever since British redcoats bullied citizens in the colonies, Americans have tried to keep the military out of civilian affairs. Following the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, southern lawmakers, who despised federal troops for helping former slaves get a foothold in the defeated South at the point of a bayonet, pushed a bill through Congress that still applies today. It forbids federal troops from enforcing state and local laws. Federal forces have been summoned to quell riots and such. But that was allowed because they were enforcing federal laws, state governors had invited them, or they were operating on federal land.
In water-logged Louisiana, President Bush asked the governor to cede control of relief efforts to the feds. She declined. Thus, you'll find both armed, state-controlled guardsmen and women, and federal soldiers carrying unloaded weapons in storm-ravaged New Orleans.