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War Can Threaten Civil Liberties at Home

by Allan M. Winkler on Oct 3, 2001

Allan M. Winkler

A student of Lebanese background at a university in Ohio was walking across the campus when someone pointed a finger at her and yelled, “Terrorist!”

A Lebanese student at a university in North Carolina was beaten without provocation on the campus.

A Saudi Arabian student at a city college in California was assaulted while walking near his home.

These incidents and others like them have all occurred since the savage attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. And together they augur the kind of backlash the United States needs to avoid, even as it seeks to root out the terrorists responsible for these monstrous crimes.

Nations often find themselves consumed by passions that can spiral out of control in time of war.

During World War I, Americans were outraged at Germany for its attack on neutral Belgium in 1914, and later for its deadly submarine attacks on ships such as the Lusitania, carrying American citizens, in 1915. After the United States entered the war in 1917, the German language was prohibited in some communities, and Americans even resorted to the absurd expedient of renaming hamburger “Salisbury steak” and sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” And some Germans found themselves subject to physical attack.

But the situation was worse during World War II. Enraged at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans were ready to retaliate against both Japan and the Japanese.

By early 1942, Japanese Americans living in the United States found themselves what historian Roger Daniels has called “prisoners without trial.” What happened then provides us with the best example of the consequences when aggressive, retaliatory passions get out of hand.

Japanese Americans in the 1940s were a minority in the United States, just as Muslims are today. They numbered only 127,000, roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the American population. Yet they had faced discrimination ever since they began arriving in the late 19th century.

Anti-Japanese sentiment intensified in the early months of the war. Using the pejorative word for a Japanese person then thought acceptable, Gen. John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, observed: “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. I don’t want any of them.” The governor of Idaho was even more explicit. “A good solution to the Jap problem would be to send them all back to Japan, then sink the island,” he said. “They live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats.”

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned above all with the war effort, bowed to political pressure. In February 1942 he signed Executive Order 9066, which evacuated all West Coast Japanese from their homes. When it became clear that other parts of the country were not willing to accept the Japanese, a newly-created War Relocation Authority, acting with presidential and congressional approval, brushed constitutional guarantees aside and forcibly moved 110,000 Japanese Americans to ten detention camps in seven western states. Quarters were primitive and uncomfortable. The whole experience was humiliating and left deep scars on thousands of loyal Americans of Japanese descent.

The internment was the greatest single violation of civil liberties in the history of the United States.

Today, there is a very real danger of the similar abuse of foreigners in America who are thought to look Arabic or embrace Islam. The administration has already announced an expansion of the power to detain immigrants suspected of crimes, with new rules allowing legal immigrants to be detained indefinitely in the event of a national emergency. Although both immigration lawyers and civil liberties advocates are concerned, anger at the devastating terrorist attacks continues to guide the response. We have thus far managed to avoid serious attacks on large numbers of Muslims, or wholesale violations of civil liberties, but the groundwork for such episodes has now been laid.

Though the United States does not, as yet, have either a formal, legal enemy, named as such by an act of Congress, or a declaration of war, it is proceeding as if it was involved in such a conflict. Even so, the crisis, which may well involve military operations abroad, could lead to even greater pressures on minorities at home. As the nation prepares to retaliate against terrorism, it must be ever-vigilant to make sure that innocent people are not singled out for discriminatory treatment, either by fellow citizens or by the government.

Congress, worried recently about a budget shortfall, nonetheless promptly appropriated $40 billion for both revenge and reconstruction. Reconstruction may place long-term strains on the economy. But in the short run, as it seeks revenge, the United States needs to keep all of its priorities in mind, including the reaffirmation of the constitutional rights of all its people.


Allan M. Winkler is Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University, Ohio, and a writer for the History News Service.