What to do about enemies already living within this country

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Jun 11, 2002 12:00 AM

One of the problems that urgently needs some serious thought by President Bush's proposed new Homeland Security Department is the problem of what to do about enemies already living within this country. Our legal system has not yet faced the grim implications of that fact.

A federal judge recently turned loose a suspected terrorist who will be free to walk among us pending trial. Most Arabs in this country are not terrorists, but if every Arab who is delayed or inconvenienced by security personnel at an airport can sue the airlines for millions, then those who are terrorists are likely to be able to get through and claim more victims.

Too many people are so preoccupied with the threat of "racial profiling" that they are forgetting the larger threat to American lives. Looking back at the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II seems more important to some people than looking ahead to a day when a new Pearl Harbor can occur in American cities, with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The first duty of a government is to protect its own people and perpetuate the nation. Like most worthwhile things in life, it cannot be done without costs. Considering the ultimate sacrifices made by heroic firemen, policemen and airline passengers who battled terrorists, it is not too much to expect the rest of us to make an effort to achieve clarity, instead of repeating shibboleths.

Since so many people insist on resurrecting the internment of Japanese Americans, we ought to take a close, hard look at that painful episode. At the heart of this tragedy was the fact that Japanese Americans were loyal to this country and proved that loyalty with their blood and their lives on the battlefield. Had they been a disloyal threat within, their internment would have been perfectly justified when the nation was fighting a war of survival. It was not inevitable that Japanese immigrants would be loyal to their adopted country during a war against Japan. The Japanese in Brazil were fanatically pro-Japan.

A scholar in Japan has pointed out that the Japanese who settled in the United States differed from those who settled in Brazil because they emigrated during radically different eras in the history of Japan. Those who came here emigrated during an era of pro-American feeling in Japan, and those who settled in Brazil emigrated during a later era of fanatical Japanese nationalism.

Even when the war ended, the Japanese in Brazil refused to believe that Japan had surrendered. Some of the few among them who dared to say publicly that Japan had been defeated were assassinated. Had Japanese Americans been fanatics like this, the U.S. government would have had not only the right, but the duty, to put them behind barbed wire in wartime.

The general who pushed for the internment of Japanese Americans was neither knowledgeable enough nor wise enough to make such a momentous decision. But there is no nation of more than a hundred million people without some jackasses. Nor is there any known way to prevent a jackass from getting into a position of power, especially with the time-consuming pressures of a global war preoccupying those above him.

Now that this tragic mistake of World War II has been acknowledged and restitution attempted, let us not blindly apply this situation as an analogy to the situation of immigrants from the Middle East living in our midst today. No one wants to see Middle Easterners in the United States scapegoated for things over which they had no control. But neither should they be exempt from responsibility for their own actions.

There are disturbing reports -- including some in Bill Bennett's very insightful book "Why We Fight" -- of statements and actions from within many Middle Eastern communities in the United States that raise very serious questions about where their loyalties lie. It is up to them to decide whether they are going to be like the Japanese in America or the Japanese in Brazil.

Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of the government of the United States to decide what to do when the lives of the American people are at stake. And it cannot decide that on the basis of blind analogies and knee-jerk shibboleths.