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Today’s terrorized American is disinclined toward moral appeals, especially those that defend the rights of noncitizen Arabs and Muslims. David Cole’s new book, Enemy Aliens, argues that it was always so; America’s intemperate hunts for Communists, Asians, anarchists, and terrorists raised few hackles among a public conditioned to fear barbarians at the gates. It was not until the sweeps targeted Americans—crossing the “citizen-noncitizen divide”—that Congress, the courts, and advocacy groups intervened. Mining a hundred years of social history and jurisprudence, Cole offers a compelling dictum: Laws unfairly targeting so-called “aliens” will invariably swell to include legislation that limits the rights of citizens.
With Enemy Aliens, Cole sounds the alarm. The Bush administration has already crossed the divide, he warns, holding two American citizens—Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi—in military custody, without access to their lawyers or their families. Those names are certainly more familiar to Americans than the blindfolded residents of Guantánamo Bay, but they’re not as well-known as John Walker Lindh, the white “American Taliban” who was the subject of a warm, glossy spread in People. Cole understands that no discussion of “other” is complete without race, and he fixes the recent detention of Arabs and Muslims alongside its shameful World War II antecedent. “The difference of the Japanese,” Cole writes, “a difference founded initially on alienage but ultimately on race—made it easier for the white majority to accept measures targeted at the Japanese.”
Enemy Aliens is also the story of the demagogues and their opponents. J. Edgar Hoover would have deported thousands of immigrants following the mail-bomb attacks of 1919, if not for the intervention of then labor secretary Louis Post, who reversed over a thousand of the deportation orders. David Cole’s lucid, reasoned writing is a forceful antidote to the current round of xenophobic zeal.