Under the Dome

Under the Dome is Stephen King’s 2009 novel about a small Maine town—Chester’s Mill, Maine, located approximately here—which is shut off from the outside world after an invisible, semi-permeable barrier slams down around it one October morning. It’s an extended (1,100 pages certainly counts as that) look at what happens to human society when it is completely isolated. If this is sounding a little like the setup for Lord of the Flies, there’s a reason for that. Turns out the how and why of the Dome aren’t really the point so much as what happens to the characters as a result.

There are two things we’re going to look at here. One has to do with martial law, the other with municipal government. There are some spoilers here.

I. Martial Law

Martial law is a rather complicated subject, and we’ll just begin to scratch the surface here. Suffice to say that while the term is bandied about quite a bit, especially in the context of political campaigns, its definition is somewhat amorphous. In terms of US law, it generally has something to do with the suspension of habeas corpus, the federal writ whereby someone detained by the government may contest their detention in court. This is one of the most fundamental civil liberties. It’s enshrined in the Constitution—Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 2—and commonly referred to as “The Great Writ.” There have been several important habeas cases in the Supreme Court over the last ten years (e.g., Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush), but they mostly have to do with the detention of foreign combatants and so aren’t really on point here. Ex parte Milligan, a Civil War case challenging Lincoln’s imposition of martial law, is more to the point. There, the Supreme Court held that the President does not have the authority to declare martial law and suspend civil rights where civilian courts are still functional.

What exactly is martial law? Wikipedia suggests that it is “the imposition of military rule by military authorities over designated regions on an emergency basis,” but we frequently use the term to suggest any period of time in which the government has suspended normal civil rights and judicial procedures and is using military forces to keep order. Rule may still be in the hands of the civilian government, but the government is doing things it would not normally do, or be able to do, and is using military rather than law enforcement officers to carry out its will. “Martial law” is a somewhat disfavored term, partly because it does suggest actual rule by military authorities, so state of emergency is frequently used instead. The terms are somewhat interchangeable, largely because there is no precise definition for either.

In the book, what happens is that the President—Obama in his second term—”declares martial law” and designates a town resident, Capt. Dale Barbara (U.S. Army, inactive), to serve as the highest legal authority, promoting Barbara to Colonel at the same time. The local government, particularly Second Selectman James “Big Jim” Rennie, doesn’t take kindly to this, but nevermind that for now. The question is whether this is (1) legal or (2) likely.

The answer is… well kinda, but not really. When “martial law” or a “state of emergency” is declared, it is usually state governors, not the President, that does so. While the President has very limited authority to send in federal troops—we talked about posse comitatus last year—state governors also have troops at their disposal, i.e., the National Guard. A governor’s ability to send in the National Guard tends to be significantly greater than the President’s ability to send in the Army. But that aside, what’s weird is that Under the Dome doesn’t really make any mention of the National Guard, or even the governor of Maine. True, the situation can be fairly construed as a national security crisis, but the idea that state government and the National Guard wouldn’t be involved at all is somewhat unusual, as is the idea that federal officials would simply ignore the municipal government entirely. It seems more likely that Barbara would be interfacing with state authorities rather than federal ones, or at least talking to both of them.

But that aside, the imposition of “martial law” or a “state of emergency” does seem to be at least potentially legal here. The town is completely cut off from the outside, and local government doesn’t seem to be functioning. Indeed, the Dome isn’t the only justification here. If Big Jim Rennie had simply gone off the rails and decided to turn the town into his own personal fiefdom, that alone would potentially justify sending in the troops. In 1957 during the Little Rock Crisis, President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne and nationalized the entire Arkansas National Guard to send nine children to school pursuant to Brown v. Board of Education. Remember, under Ex parte Milligan, the question is not why local government isn’t functioning, it’s whether local government isn’t functioning. Could be natural disaster, could be a manmade one, or it could just be some local official getting too big for his britches. Because the state governor in this case is presumably entirely in support of law and order here, the President would likely want to work through the governor’s office rather than around it, but designating a military officer to be in charge of things during the crisis does seem plausible.

II. Local Government

The Town of Chester’s Mill is governed on the local level by a Board of Selectmen. This, as it turns out, is pretty accurate. Boards of Selectmen are common in New England municipalities, which tend to have boards of three (or nine) selectmen rather than mayors and/or town councils like most of the rest of the country. Maine has counties, and Chester’s Mill is supposedly in Oxford County, but counties in New England tend to be somewhat less active than in many other states. So the idea that the Chester’s Mill Board of Selectmen would have significant local authority is fairly plausible. Especially when said Board is unbelievably corrupt and abusing its authority long before the Dome ever came down.

So is the idea that the town could have acquired significant amounts of emergency equipment using federal dollars. The USDA actually has a page about Homeland Security programs for local government officials in rural communities, and there are grants available. Chester’s Mill would seem to count.

But just generally speaking, the story fits the model of political corruption in the US: if you really want to find dirt, you go local, not national. National politicians are certainly not free from influence, but we only rarely seem them actually skimming from public coffers or, you know running meth labs. Sweetheart loans and tax irregularities are one thing, but envelopes full of cash (William Jefferson notwithstanding) and outright embezzlement are something else again. If you want to find that level of malfeasance, you need to check local governments. Oversight is generally a lot lower, both officially and unofficially (support your local newspaper!), and the potential for abuse is much higher, as local politicians frequently have more discretionary powers than their state or national brethren. Big Jim Rennie would have been right at home on the Chicago City Council, of which almost a third of the members between 1973 and 2012 have been convicted of some form of corruption.

III. Conclusion

So “martial law” or a “state of emergency” does seem plausible and likely legal given the facts of the story, but such would probably have involved state and local officials rather than skipping directly to Col. Barbara. Indeed, one can imagine an even rougher state of affairs if the President had tapped the Board of Selectmen rather than Barbara. But the idea that a local politician could develop a stranglehold on local politics, to the point of corruption and outright crime, is depressingly plausible, particularly in a rural area like western Maine.

9 responses to “Under the Dome

  1. Frankly, I suspect that the choice to have Obama involved directly was more for narrative convenience than anything else. So much easier to establish Big Jim as corrupt when you can turn to casual racism (as I recall correctly, Big Jim cites this as a reason for disregarding the orders of the President) and distrust of Federal government than to have him turning against John Baldacci, a white man and more of a local boy.

    • Also that was written during a period of incredible exuberance for Obama and it wasn’t uncommon to find comic books looking for ways to fit him in for a cameo, a King novel is by no means any less likely.

  2. Never mind the legality of it (just for a second). Imposition of martial law is done with troops, who impose (or restore) order by force of arms. One colonel isn’t going to be able to do it unless he (or she) has a regiment to command. This is why martial law works… because the soldiers have guns, and they have military discipline.
    I would think, if the problem is ineffective, corrupt local government, and you can’t land the 101st, it would be a marshal that could clean house (if, in fact, it can be done… scared people follow authority figures).

    Is this book older than the Simpsons movie?

  3. The thing is, even if it would be unlikely? One paragraph could’ve been tossed in to have the governor deferring to the president, and handled Barbara reporting to the non-nat’l guard superiors because he was normal Army. This would have been believable enough to cover suspension of disbelief for most readers, handwaving away the whole problem.

  4. Sounds oddly like the Simpsons movie.

    • Melanie Koleini

      King came up with the idea for The Dome well before the Simpsons movie but I think the book may have been published after the Simpsons. 

  5. Melanie Koleini

    Based on the Wiki page for the book, the survivors (heroes) of the story do a lot of things that would be considered crimes under normal circumstances.   

    Specifically, they stage a jail brake and kill the town’s murderusly insane sheriff before the sherif can kill Col. Barbra. 

    Now it looks like they have a great legal defense for their actions.  Aside from saving Barbra’s life, the heroes thought they needed him to destroy the device that was creating the dome.   They believed they needed to get the dome down before  Big Jim got everybody killed. Given Jim’s actions did lead to the destruction of the town and nearly everyone dying, I don’t think they need to worry about capital murder charges, but still, should they talk to a lawyer before they talk to the police?

    If this happened in the real world, the Congressional investigation would last a long time. Should the survivors ask for immunity (or Presidential pardon) before testifying before Congress? 

  6. This post reminded of the Gone book series. A bunch of children are stuck in a sphere without adults, but the children also develop meta-human abilities. Also, one of the main characters repeatedly worries about what sort of consequences (some of them legal) he might face for things that he “had” to do to survive, protect others, etc.

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