Monday, January 13, 2003

Interning Americans

I see [via Atrios] that Glenn Reynolds is joining the chorus of conservative voices that are leading us toward interning Muslim-Americans. This is a dangerous trend that very well could repeat one of the really tragic mistakes of American history.

In this post today, Reynolds tries to suggest that maybe there might be some rationale later on down the road for a blanket internment of Muslims:

The wrongfulness in the World War Two internments, after all, wasn't that they happened, but that they were unjustified. Had significant numbers of American citizens of Japanese descent actually been working for the enemy, the internments would have been a regrettable necessity rather than an outrageous injustice.

In other words, if someone establishes by some "official" means that a "significant number" (could we be more vague?) of Arab-Americans is actually working for Al Qaeda, that might justify rounding up and interning Arab-Americans. (Or will it be Muslim-Americans? Hard to tell.) Thus we slide merrily down a slope already proven by history to turn quickly into a sharp cliff.

Like Reynolds' correspondent, Eric Muller, I also happen to know a great deal about the Nikkei internment, since I've also written a book (due out for publication sometime next year, from University of Washington Press) about that episode in history.

Reynolds' logic crashes on the rocks of history. There are many problems with the Japanese-American internment, only one of which was that it was unjustified. The mere fact that it happened, and more precisely, the circumstances under which it occurred -- which are being replicated today -- are perhaps the biggest problems of them all, especially in the context of the Constitution.

The centerpiece of the Japanese-American internment was FDR's Executive Order 9066, which set a precedent that has never been overturned: It gave to the U.S. military, for the first time in history, the power to control entire populations of citizens -- to arrest and intern them in concentration camps, if necessary. All that needed to happen was that the Pentagon needed to make a finding of military necessity.

And of course, the problem with FDR granting this power is that the military's procedures were accountable to no one else. With virtually no oversight -- and with the open assistance of a provost marshal intent on giving the army the power to round up civilians, regardless of their race -- the commander of the Western Defense Command was able to make a finding of "military necessity" based on not a single shred of evidence, but rather on a web of race-baiting stereotypes that made all Japanese-Americans out to be traitors.

As it happens, the Bush administration has made precisely the same move: It has empowered the military to arrest, interrogate and imprison U.S. citizens it deems to be "enemy combatants," and it is doing so without any kind of oversight or accountability outside of the secret courts that are part of the military system.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the courts (in the Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu cases) specifically upheld the terms of the internment, a precedent that has never been overturned. Moreover, the courts' precedent in conceding to the judgment of the military in its power over citizens has never been overturned. As Frank Chuman puts it: "After 1943 the national policy of the United States government would be grounded on the legal precedent that whether military intentions be good, wicked, or merely capricious, the actions of the military, if based on 'findings' of 'military necessity,' would be upheld by the United States Supreme Court."

If Reynolds or anyone else wishes to confirm this, they could do themselves the favor of consulting the main texts on the legal aspects of the internment: Peter Irons' Justice at War:The Story of the Japanese-American Intermment Cases and Frank Chuman's Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans. Another important text is Roger Daniels' The Decision to Relocate the Japanese-Americans.

Now, the Nikkei internment was a fait accompli within about six months of Pearl Harbor, and clearly we are not yet duplicating the circumstances, though we are edging close enough that we are probably only another terrorist attack away from making it a reality. What's really of concern, as much as the fact that the Bush administration has put into place the mechanisms for pulling off another internment, is the kind of Muslim-bashing rhetoric that is really starting to proliferate on the right.

In this regard, I was struck by this passage from a letter writer Reynolds cites:

This is in stark contrast to many Muslims (not all) who howl about perceived civil rights violations and yet refuse to assimilate American values and culture, treat their wives and daughters as slaves and seek to supplant religious freedom with Islamic tyranny.

This passage nearly duplicates the very arguments raised by a lot of the people who were agitating for the Japanese-American internment at the time. Probably the most popular rationalization for internment in the spring of 1942 came from truisms about the Nikkei that had been established over forty years of racial propaganda. Primary among these were that the Issei -- who actually were forbidden from naturalizing as a matter of American law -- were still "loyal" to Japan by force of their citizenship; that they came to this country and never intended to return; that their clannishness and insularity were indications of potential treason among all Japanese; and that their children were being "indoctrinated" into emperor-worship at the Nikkei communities' Japanese-language schools.

All of these truisms, as it happens were either demonstrably false or only partially true and ultimately gross distortions of the real nature of the immigrant community. Many Issei indeed emigrated fully intending to stay here. Many considered themselves loyal Americans who harbored the hope that through their hard work and good citizenship, one day the prejudice against them would subside and they would be granted the right to become citizens. And certainly their Nisei children were deeply if not fully Americanized, and certainly were patriotic citizens. The schools existed almost solely for the purpose of helping the Nisei children, for whom English was their primary language, communicate with their Issei parents, who often themselves were poorly educated anyway and found English a nearly insurmountable mountain to climb.

Finally, Reynolds cites the overt patriotism of the Nisei during the internment horror, embodied by the Japanese-American Citizens' League's rather public cooperation with authorities, and contrasts it with the alleged combativeness of the Muslim-American community. But when I turn to the Web site of the most prominent Muslim-American organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, I find plenty of evidence of overt pro-American patriotism. Certainly there has been no shortage of denunciation of radical Islamists. See, for instance, the Muslim condemnation of the 9/11 attacks that is advertised with a large graphic button on the site.

Moreover, as his friend Eric Muller well knows, the JACL has for many years had to grapple with the fact that its opposition to the internment was so flaccid, and that its cooperativeness was not by any means an altogether good thing. That is, after all, an important subtext of his masterful book, Free to Die for their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II.

I'm working on an article on this subject for Salon. Look for more details there, though obviously I'll announce a link here when it runs.

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