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.
The same principle applies when survivors of a shipwreck try to climb out of the water into an already overloaded lifeboat and are shot before they can capsize the lifeboat and drown all on board. It is not a question of individual guilt but of survival.
Fortunately, we do not face these kinds of situations very often but, when we do, we cannot simply close our eyes to the bitter reality and continue through inertia to apply the same rules we would apply in other and very different times.
Regardless of what principles we believe in, we can only make our choices among alternatives actually available. Pretending that there are other options available, in order that we can apply the principles we usually apply, is a dangerous self-indulgence.
Obviously this does not mean that any group that has any disloyal individuals should be locked up en masse. Even Japanese Americans had some disloyal individuals, but hardly enough to justify what was done to them.
But if you have a group in which disloyalty is widespread and which provides both havens and recruits for international terrorism, we do not have to wait until millions of Americans are killed before acting. What is at issue is not punishment but quarantine.
These are not abstract questions being discussed around a seminar table. If we wake up some morning and find two or three American cities destroyed by enemies within, what is likely to happen to Middle Easterners in our midst will make quarantine seem humane by comparison and more of a protection than a punishment.