Rounding Up the 'Enemy'

Sixty Years After It Jailed Japanese Americans, Would the U.S. Consider Another Ethnic Internment?

A 1980s congressional investigation—hard-won by Asian American activists—revealed not a single act of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese descendant on U.S. soil. Congress, including members like Newt Gingrich, approved legislation granting an official apology and reparations of $20,000 per survivor, and President George Bush Sr. agreed.

But as scholarly accounts have noted, the legislative process was largely a backroom victory in which members agreed to vote their conscience because of the relative obscurity of the issue. There was no nationwide awakening in which Americans everywhere were forced to reckon with their history. And the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 sought to "discourage" a future internment, but it did not outright forbid a repeat.

The act has done little to protect Middle Easterners in the U.S. today, Iijima believes. "The prejudice against immigrants is very, very high," she says, accurately observing that "actual [hate] murders have occurred" since September 11. (The Justice Department reported a surge in hate incidents following the terrorist attacks, and the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations alone had tallied over 1700 as of February.)

But would the American public tolerate another such massive, ethnic crackdown in the event of another attack? It could be argued there is more incentive today: The plane hijackings, unlike the Pearl Harbor bombing, involved individuals living in the U.S.

Only one publicly released poll has asked directly. Conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press over the weekend immediately following September 11, it might provide a reasonable measure of gut reaction in case of future attacks, says research director Michael Dimock.

Twelve hundred adults nationwide were asked, "Would you favor or oppose the following measures to curb terrorism. . . . Allowing the U.S. government to take legal immigrants from unfriendly countries to internment camps during times of tension or crisis." Twenty-nine percent of respondents were in favor, and 57 percent were not. Says Dimock, "A clear majority were opposed. But I know people who looked at that number and went, 'Oh my god, nearly three in 10 people are in favor of this?'" Moreover, he says, "a higher proportion said, 'don't know,' or refused to answer this than the other questions. There may be some people in their heart of hearts who support the idea and don't say so over the phone. I'm sure that it did happen."

Yet, says John Stauber of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, "public opinion is very malleable." It can be quelled or—especially by political parties in an election year with a battered economy—ignited. "The administration has consistently been warning the American people to watch out for further terrorist attacks. There are all sorts of examples—Reagan and the Grenada invasion—where some sort of swift action by the president involving military response to a perceived threat galvanizes public support [for the party]."

There has been plenty of action already to remind Iijima and Matsuda and others with long memories of a dark past: Dozens of terror alerts from the Justice Department. Repeated calls from leaders for ordinary Americans to watch their neighbors. Anti-Muslim bias incidents, including job firings and beatings. Explorations of ways around a domestic martial law ban. Indefinite captivity without trials for at least two U.S. citizens. Secret detentions of at least 750, if not hundreds more, Arabs and South Asians. Their court hearings are closed, leaving the public and press with no way of knowing whether the hearings have been lawful or have happened at all.

Three federal judges have said the Justice Department is violating detainees' due process rights. Not only civil libertarians and Muslim American advocates, but also congressional conservatives like Orrin Hatch have suggested the administration has gone too far. Republican Arlen Specter last Thursday told Ashcroft at a Senate committee hearing he was troubled by the detention of noncitizens on minor visa violations.

To Matsuda, today's political climate is even "more dangerous" than in the months leading up to World War II internment. "In those days, we had so-called liberals in power," she says. Ashcroft's counterpart at the time, along with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, opposed internment. "But today, we have a very different setup which is more ominous," says Matsuda.

Speculating about another attack and its political aftermath seems in very poor taste—the indelicacy is part of why Bush appointee Kirsanow has been so harshly criticized. But refusing to consider the worst possible scenario now could permit a day when it is too late. The diversity of nationalities linked to today's terrorism might complicate a massive roundup, but it could also excuse an extremely wide net. And the Bush-Ashcroft team's penchant for operating in secrecy, along with a vast prison capacity that did not exist during World War II, might allow for such detainments to happen even before most Americans knew it.

But once they found out, what would they do? Two Americans know for sure: Iijima and Matsuda would protest to the end. The experiences of their youth galvanized them over the decades to help start the Asian American rights movement, support black activists, and oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam. Since September 11, though hampered a bit by age, they have thrown down with local Arabs and South Asians. Says Iijima, "We work so it won't happen again."

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