Thomas Sowell

Hardly a week goes by without at least one reader asking a really tough question. The latest tough question dealt with a recent column which said that, in a war for survival, the government has not only the right but the duty to intern groups whose loyalties are to our enemies.

My argument was that the government's first duty is to protect its people and perpetuate the nation -- and this cannot be done without somebody paying a cost. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was an unnecessary cost and a human tragedy because they were loyal to this country and posed no genuine danger. But the real question is about others who may not be loyal and who can pose very serious dangers to the lives of millions of other Americans.

The reader, who identified himself as "a moderate libertarian," was disappointed and disturbed by that argument. Even if some Arab Americans "are in fact more loyal to Islamic fundamentalism than to their own country," he asks, how can that justify discrimination against all Arab Americans?

He finds "any form of collective punishment based on ethnicity" unacceptable. "How can a group," he asks, "be responsible for what some (or even most) of its members have done?"

First of all, it is not an established fact that most Arab Americans are more loyal to Islamic fundamentalism than to the United States, though there have been enough words and deeds to raise questions about that possibility. Bill Bennett's book "Why We Fight" is just one of the sources for this.

Ultimately, however, this is not a question just about Arab Americans. It is a more general question, to which this was my reply to this reader:

I take it as axiomatic that the right to survive trumps every other right, since none of your rights means anything if you do not survive. I also take it as axiomatic that process costs are not always negligible, and are particularly likely to be very high in a war for survival.

The internment of enemy aliens in wartime was nothing new nor unique to the United States. Moreover, the quarantine of people exposed to deadly diseases exemplifies the same principle -- irrespective of individual fault or even whether every individual in the group has actually become infected or contagious. The process costs of discovering who does and who does not actually have a deadly and contagious disease can be just too high to take that chance.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate