The American people have a sacred right to protest, and to do so peacefully. Our government has a duty to protect our fellow Americans who are protesting the horrific killing of George Floyd. It also has a responsibility to keep communities safe from looting and destructive violence.
The Department of Defense exists to safeguard our citizens, not dominate them. I was dismayed to see DoD drawn inappropriately this week into the president’s response to protests. There is here no need, no warrant, and no excuse to bring active-duty military force into the restoration of order. I say this as a former Secretary of Defense who dealt with many situations where military intervention was helpful, even vital, in the homeland—past epidemics, hurricanes and floods, and so forth.
Equally abhorrent to me was the inclusion of defense leaders in political theater. Presidents deserve to have loyal teams in the Pentagon, since otherwise the Constitution’s promise of civilian control of the military is not real. When we politicize our armed forces, however, we risk weakening the finest fighting force the world has ever known. I can appreciate all too well the tension secretaries of defense face in shuttling between two spheres. When these pressures are in conflict, it’s vital to remember that our North Star is the Constitution. We who have sworn a public oath do so not to the president of the United States, nor to the armed forces, but to the Constitution.
Even as we keep the proper role of the United States military in mind, we need to pause for a deeper reflection about the health of our homeland. Phrases like “systemic racism” and “structural inequality” are wholly inadequate to describe the barbarism of a uniformed officer pressing his knee into the neck of an unarmed man. Those officers—who pledged to protect us—instead stole George Floyd’s life.
In the days since Floyd’s killing, we’ve seen an extraordinary outpouring of people from all walks of life seeking answers, justice, and progress. Some see this movement and see a nation fraying at the seams. I disagree. I see an American people resolved as never before to stamp out the stain of racism and fulfill our nation’s founding promise that all of us truly are created equal. We are confronting racism for what it is: a virus that attacks our body politic from within.
The protests that have now spread globally are critically important to awaken all of us to the urgency of this problem. That’s why the looting and violence by others that we’ve also seen this week is so infuriating. We can’t let those who would bring out the worst in each other stop the rest of us from bringing out the best.
There’s tremendous work needed ahead. But hard is not impossible, and we who call the Belfer Center home should feel a special responsibility to lead. We are proud of our convening power, our teaching of a new and better generation, and our impact on behalf of building a more secure, peaceful world—and justly so. Never forget the power that each of us has to use this storied institution to make our values and voices heard on behalf of justice.
As a practical matter, I want to be clear that a center whose primary research lies at the intersection of science, technology, and international affairs cannot and should not shy away from the issues of social and racial justice. There can be no international security without real human security. Second, and just as important, we need to rededicate ourselves to prioritizing diversity within our own community. This is too important to be left to an outside office or committee. Each of us has the responsibility and opportunity to affirm our commitment in this area with energetic action. This includes, but is not limited to, the choices we make about hiring decisions, speakers, fellows, research topics, mentorship, and so on. Are we actively seeking and lifting up minority voices and viewpoints, or are we settling for business as usual? The answers will speak volumes about our priorities.
I believe that we can do our part to transform this painful episode into lasting and positive change. But we have to be all in this together.