Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Slouching Towards Manzanar

The internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942 was one of those almost lightning occurrences -- it began gathering momentum within days of Pearl Harbor, and reached a critical mass within two months. The actual evacuation and internment was completed within a matter of six months.

In contrast, the talk about interning Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11 has been relatively quiet, mostly relegated to a few freaks like Michael Savage, Ann Coulter and Glenn Reynolds. The Bush administration, to its credit, has sternly put the kibosh on the incipient Muslim-bashing within the GOP.

But even that lid is starting to come off, and it is becoming clear that such an internment is highly likely if there is another terrorist attack like 9/11 on American soil. Compared to 1942, the internment of Muslim-Americans is happening at a snail's pace, like a steady drip. But it seems to be happening anyway.

First there was Peter Kirsanow, the controversial Bush appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, who suggested last July that Arab-Americans might wind up in internment camps. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of Islam-bashing from the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich.

Now comes this, from the Associated Press:

N.C. Rep. Endorses WWII Internments

[Note that this is not merely a Republican official, but one who is in a position to make internment a reality.]
HIGH POINT, N.C. -- A congressman who heads a homeland security subcommittee said on a radio call-in program that he agreed with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., made the remark Tuesday on WKZL-FM when a caller suggested Arabs in the United States should be confined.

Coble, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, said he didn't agree with the caller but did agree with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established the internment camps.

"We were at war. They (Japanese-Americans) were an endangered species," Coble said. "For many of these Japanese-Americans, it wasn't safe for them to be on the street."

This is the "protective custody" theory of the internment. It sounds high-minded now, but it is entirely ahistorical. For starters, even if this were true, it was not part of anyone's argument during the buildup to the internment. Neither the government nor the citizens who demanded the internment ever justified it by suggesting that the "Japs" be put away for their own protection. It was entirely about protecting the populace from the "Japs." Why else, when the internees arrived at the camps, did they discover that the guns in the guard towers were turned inward?

Moreover, it is a complete capitulation on the part of civil society to thuggery and mob rule. It suggests that law-enforcement officials would be unwilling (as they were during the lynching era) to protect the lives and property of the innocent.

Here's the definitive reply to this argument, from Personal Justice Denied: The Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (p. 89), which noted that "the argument that the exclusion served to protect the Nikkei against vigilantism had wide currency":
This explanation sounds lame indeed today. It was not publicly advanced at the time to justify the exclusion and, had protection been on official minds, a much different post-evacuation program would have been required. [Internment architect and Assistant War Secretary John] McCloy himself supplied the most telling rebuttal of the contention in a 1943 letter to DeWitt:

That there is serious animosity on the West Coast against all evacuated Japanese I do not doubt, but that does not necessarily mean that we should trim our sails accordingly ... The Army, as I see it, is not responsible for the general public peace of the Western Defense Command. That responsibility still rests with the civil authorities. There may, as you suggest, be incidents, but these can be effectively discouraged by prompt action by law enforcement agencies, with the cooperation of the military if they even assume really threatening proportions.

That is the simple, straightforward answer to the argument of protection against vigilantes -- keeping the peace is a civil matter that would involve the military only in extreme situations. Even then, public officials would be duty-bound to protect the innocent, not to order them from their homes for months or years under the rubric of a military measure designed to maintain public peace.

Then Coble shifts gears and offers this rationalization:
Like most Arab-Americans today, Coble said, most Japanese-Americans during World War II were not America's enemies.

Still, Coble said, Roosevelt had to consider the nation's security.

"Some probably were intent on doing harm to us," he said, "just as some of these Arab-Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us."

Note that this is a completely different argument, one which undermines the sincerity of the first. And it's equally specious, if not more so.

I've observed previously that not only is the evidence overwhelming that the Japanese-American internment prevented little if any sabotage or espionage, but it is also painfully clear that the enterprise was an enormous waste, a drain on the war effort, and a blot on the Constitution. (I've also knocked down the similarly spurious, but currently fashionable, argument that the unjustness of the internment was the only thing wrong with it.)

But even more chilling about Coble's argument is its bottom line: It is making a case for the imprisonment of American citizens based on a presumption of guilt.

I don't think I need to explain that this is contrary to one of the bedrock principles of American law. Not, however, that such concerns have ever deterred the Bush administration.

I mean, did any Republicans bother seeing Minority Report? If they did, did they get it?

[As it happens, I have an article on this very subject upcoming soon in Salon. Keep an eye out for it.]

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