The Coronavirus has caused an unprecedented crisis in the U.S. and across the world. Stock markets have crashed, businesses have failed, and unemployment has soared. In this crisis, governments are resorting to extreme measures to contain the spread of the virus. Some of these could help reduce the risk of transmission, but there is also reason to be concerned about the large-scale deployment of repressive measures and curtailment of civil liberties. Historically, quarantines and lockdowns have not always been effective and have discriminated against minorities and oppressed people.

When the Coronavirus first broke out in China, allegations emerged that the Chinese state locked people in their homes and left them without adequate food or medical care. More recently people in Hubei province have defied the lockdown to protest high food prices among other things. In Israel, the government plans to use “anti-terrorism” surveillance technology to track the spread of the Coronavirus. This has led to concerns about increased domestic surveillance and spying on Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Countries hit the hardest by the Coronavirus have imposed extreme measures to contain its spread. Italy is under a complete lockdown, and those who break the rules face fines or even criminal charges. In one case, a man was sentenced to twelve years in prison. In France similar restrictions are in place, and the central government has deployed 100,000 gendarmes and police to enforce the nation-wide quarantine. People in France are now required to fill out a form just to leave their homes, even to go food shopping.

As the Coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S. and the healthcare system becomes increasingly overwhelmed, it is likely that the U.S. government will roll out similar measures. Some steps in this direction have already been taken. Earlier this week, the Bay Area issued a “shelter in place” order, which directed everyone in the region to stay in their homes as much as possible. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio indicated that he is contemplating imposing a similar order in the city. In a recent interview with MSNBC TV host Rachel Maddow, DeBlasio stated that New York City needs “military assistance” to combat the spread of the Coronavirus. This echoes statements made by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who recently called on Trump to “mobilize the military” to help fight the virus. The Governors of Georgia and Maryland have already mobilized thousands of members of the National Guard. They are not alone, many states have mobilized troops.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said that martial law “is not necessary” to combat Coronavirus, but noted that he may impose it in the future. There is widespread speculation that martial law may in fact be declared at the national-level in the not so distant future. Numerous news agencies have recently run articles about the possibility of martial law being imposed across the country. Fake mass-texts about an imminent declaration of martial law have also been circulating. Google searches for martial law in the U.S. have skyrocketed in the past few days.

A graph of google searches for the term “martial law” over time

In the U.S. martial law entails the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, meaning that people would no longer have a right to a court hearing or trial if imprisoned. It grants the military broad sweeping powers, and if imposed it would likely mean that people would be required to go through military checkpoints to move between states or even around cities. In the history of the United States, martial law on a national-level has only been declared once. This was done by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. After the Civil War, this decision was declared unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case Ex parte Milligan.

Martial law has also been imposed at a state-level numerous times, during the period of big political struggles such as the Colorado Coalfield War, the West Virginia Coal Wars, and during the Civil Rights Movement. In each of these instances, martial law was used as a pretext to crack down on people’s movements, to suppress dissent, and to prevent people from having a right to a trial by a jury of their peers. The U.S. government has been using the Coronavirus crisis to roll back financial regulations and push for legislation which would eliminate encrypted electronic communications.

All of this raises real questions about the imposition of martial law. While it would be framed as a necessary step to fight the spread of the virus, we should be very wary of the government’s efforts to undermine our democratic rights during a crisis of this magnitude. The Trump administration’s initial response to the pandemic has been widely criticized as being incompetent at containing the spread of Coronavirus. Trump repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus, comparing it to the seasonal flu. He even went so far as to call it a hoax. In a matter of days the administration’s response has shifted. Now they are considering martial law and a total lock-down of the country. While some may consider this a necessary step to fight the spread of the virus, the administration’s pattern of blatant disregard for the health and well being of the people during this pandemic raises serious questions about the imposition of martial law. The government’s inability to do something as simple as increase testing capacity also raises questions about how effective martial law would be at slowing the spread of Coronavirus. This sort of lock-down would necessarily entail a massive curtailment of civil liberties, and it would also set a precedent, justifying future use of martial law during times of crisis. All of this should give us pause.