The recent September 11th attacks have caused many Americans to wonder about the personal sacrifices to be made in order to keep the nation “safe and free.” With mixed results, it has become a common practice throughout history to restrict personal freedoms in the name of national security. Many questions arise from this process: Where is the line drawn? If liberties are restricted do they ever truly return? If it is true that we are doomed to repeat history if we fail to learn from it, an examination into the circumstances of the Japanese American internment in 1942 may inform the ways to most effectively deal with the security concerns faced by Americans today.
There is a paradox in American theories of democracy and freedom. As the United States has fought abroad in the name of freedom, we have simultaneously restricted the personal freedoms of people in the country. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged in battle in World War II, it was not only to retaliate against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but to bring down the Nazi regime that was murdering people in Europe. At the same time, Roosevelt had nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were American citizens or legal permanent residents, rounded up into internment camps, violating their civil rights to be treated with fairness and equality, without discrimination and the Fifth Amendment liberty of due process.
In 2001, people are quick to dismiss the idea of an internment of American citizens, suggesting that the country has come a long way from 1942. The hypothesis that the government might conduct surveillance or use illegal wiretaps to monitor groups or individuals that it suspects of domestic terrorism seemed foreign before September 11th, and now has become a way to gain more information about potential suspects. These new measures, included in the USA Patriot Act, delicately trace the line between national security and civil liberties. A brief look at how the Bush administration has extended its powers since September 11th includes the detaining without charge of thousands of Muslim and Arab-American men without release of information to kin nor legal access, a new Bureau of Prisons regulation which allows Justice Department officials to listen in on conversations between suspects and their lawyers and a new legislation, which includes warrant-less searches, roving wiretaps and a redefinition of a “domestic terrorist.” American society is not yet comfortably distanced from the practices of history that have threatened the civil rights and liberties Americans enjoy. Fred Korematsu’s speaking engagements continued in 2001, as he warned college students to stay aware of what the government is doing, and to stand prepared to defend their freedoms.
In times of crisis, as presidential power expands, domestic policies must take shape to ensure the protection of Americans, from foreign and domestic threats. The Bush administration has a difficult task ahead, to keep Americans safe while maintaining the freedom which makes this country great. The delicate issue of interviewing Arab Americans has presented a challenge and continues the debate among Americans about how many of our civil liberties become expendable when the country is at war.