Friday, November 12, 2004

The Balance of Fears

Leonard Pitts on the trade-off between the threat of terrorism and the threat to civil liberties.

I doubt you’ve heard what the judge said.

About the Patriot Act and the loss of civil liberties, I mean. As near as I can tell, federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima’s comments on Saturday to a conference at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles were reported only by The L.A. Times and The Associated Press.

I also doubt many of us would be all that concerned even if we had heard. The Land of the Free can be rather ambivalent about its freedoms. Or, perhaps more accurately, our attitude toward them is often at odds with our words.

Consider that 89 percent of us said the right to due process was either ”crucial” or ”very important” in a Gallup poll last year. Then consider the indignation that did not erupt over the detention of hundreds of Muslim men swept up after 9/11. They had no access to lawyers, no charges filed and no masses of Americans in an uproar about it.

So for me, Tashima’s concerns resonate. ”It’s happening all over again,” he said.

The ”it” in question is the World War II-era internment of American citizens, a subject with which Tashima is intimately familiar. A lifetime ago, the 70-year-old jurist was held at a camp near Parker, Ariz.

More than 100,000 other people of Japanese ancestry, most of them Americans, were sent to such camps following Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. naval installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We were then as we are now, a slumbering nation abruptly made aware of its own vulnerability — and determined not to get caught napping again.

So the ”Japs” — that’s what we called them then — had to go. The government rounded them up and took them away from their businesses, homes and lives. They were delivered to tar paper barracks in barbed wire compounds patrolled by soldiers. They ate their meals in mess halls, shared toilet facilities with strangers. Children went to camp schools where they were assigned to write essays about why they were proud to be Americans.

And nobody seemed to care. The courts didn’t intervene, the nation watched passively. And ever since, we have lived with the shame of that moment when America was smaller than its largest ideals.

[edit]

We Americans have a talent for disregarding lessons of the past, for deluding ourselves that we live somehow beyond the reach of history. The attitude seems to be that all the bad things that happened in the misty long ago — the excesses and moral failures — are behind us. We are too enlightened to let those things happen now.

It is, needless to say, a dangerous conceit. One is reminded of the old saying about the fate of those who refuse to learn from history. One is also reminded that people have a bottomless capacity to do crazy things when they’re scared.

I don’t mean to diminish the danger. Terrorism is a threat. Believe me, I get that. But the loss of civil liberties is, too.

So I can’t help thinking future generations are going to judge us harshly for all this. I suspect they’ll think we feared the one danger too much and the other, not nearly enough.

Even today there are those – Michelle Malkin, for one – who are not just forgetting the lessons of the past, but are advocating a return to them. If history judges us harshly, it will be not just her fault, but all of ours for not stopping them.