Outside in

by Sam Tanenhaus | October 8, 2001

Rescue workers were still combing through the wreckage of the World Trade Center when stern voices arose to caution us that the war against our attackers will not only challenge America's military resolve but also test its democracy at home. "[A] number of government agencies and their cheerleaders would be clearly tempted to lock the Bill of Rights away in some basement dustbin of the National Archives," The American Prospect warned on its website. Which agencies? Which cheerleaders? The editorial didn't say, though elsewhere the magazine published musings about "a systematic breakdown of respect for personal liberties in the name of personal and national security." Even The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse, the doyenne of Supreme Court journalists, struck an oddly panicked note: "Times like these--times of deep insecurity, grief and anger--in fact have often evoked the worst of our national instincts." Again, who exactly is encouraging those instincts in 2001? No one, it appears. Just "times like these."

Why so vague? Perhaps because these plots to curb our basic freedoms are nowhere in sight. Yes, the Bush administration has promised anti-terrorism legislation that would give Justice Department and immigration officials additional powers of search and surveillance. But do these proposals really constitute "locking the Bill of Rights away"? And do they really spring from "the worst of our national instincts"? So far the most controversial action of the Bush administration has been to double the length of time, from 24 hours to 48 hours, that law enforcement officials can detain suspect immigrants and foreign visitors while reviewing their backgrounds--hardly a sea change in civil rights. Suspects can also be held indefinitely "in the event of emergency or other extraordinary circumstance"--the kind of open-ended language that, to be sure, can lead to trouble. But it is worth remembering the context in which the new rules were written: Law enforcement officials are trying to uncover and dismantle an extensive terrorist network that very likely aims to kill many more Americans in the months and years ahead. And even with the country in the thick of its most pressing emergency in modern memory, the FBI has declined to arrest members of the four or five Osama bin Laden cells now under surveillance. Why? According to The Washington Post, "because the group members entered the country legally in recent years and have not been involved in illegal activities since they arrived." Does that sound like storm-trooper logic to you?

In any case, the proposals now being discussed may well be softened in the coming weeks, as they make their way through Congress. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has already assembled his own, milder plan, and any number of politicians and activists--from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on the left to Bob Barr and the Gun Owners of America on the right--have loudly defended privacy rights.The "systematic breakdown of respect for personal liberties" appears to be well disguised as responsible, cautious debate.

Beyond the general worries about civil liberties, there is a more specific concern about domestic backlash against Arab- and Muslim-Americans. This is warranted. Past outbreaks of American xenophobia, marked by frantic hunts for "enemies within," constitute a series of ugly precedents. Woodrow Wilson used the Espionage Act to arrest dissenting socialists during World War I. His attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, authorized brutal raids against immigrant radicals during the Red Scare of 1919. After Pearl Harbor, California Attorney General Earl Warren, whose name would later become synonymous with civil liberties, helped lead the campaign to intern 120,000 people of Japanese descent, 77,000 of them U.S. citizens. And, of course, there was the McCarthy era, with its presidential loyalty boards, anarchic congressional "investigations," and grand jury indictments.

All these examples offer sobering evidence of what America is capable of during times of real or imagined war. But they all have something in common:They were "top-down," the result of government officials publicly targeting members of specific groups for suspicion, harassment, or worse--and this official discrimination fostered unofficial discrimination by the public at large. By contrast, in the wake of this month's terror attack, leaders and lawmakers have scrupulously rejected such bigotry. Consider Bush's response to violence against Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Some of the worst incidents occurred in the Southwest, including the murder of a Pakistani shop owner in the president's home state. Bush could have easily reacted defensively, minimizing the incidents, shunting them on to local authorities, or pleading ambiguously for "cooler heads" to prevail. Instead he declared his solidarity with the victims. He invited Muslim leaders to participate in the memorial service at the National Cathedral and then visited the capital's Islamic Center on Embassy Row, where he warned that attacks on Arabs and Muslims "will not stand." Bush returned to the theme in his speech before Congress and the nation: "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."

And it wasn't only the president. Moments after Bush's speech, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle echoed the call for Americans to "be united against the acts of hatred toward innocent Arab-Americans and Muslims and all of those who have come to our country seeking opportunity." Attorney General John Ashcroft, too, despite his dubious civil rights record, has firmly declared that "violence and threats are in direct opposition to the very principles and laws of the United States and ... will not be tolerated." FBI Director Robert Mueller has authorized hate-crime investigations into 40 attacks against Arab-American citizens and institutions--a far cry from the days of J. Edgar Hoover, when the FBI harassed immigrants and refused protection to civil rights protesters. Indeed, not one prominent member of either party has stoked anti-Arab or anti-Muslim racism. Even the venomous frothings of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were aimed not at ethnic minorities but at the ACLU, "abortionists," and sundry other liberal "elites."

All of which suggests an important, and underappreciated, development in this crisis. In linking domestic tolerance to America's foreign struggles, Bush has quietly revived an approach formulated during the cold war, when U.S. credibility depended in part on global perceptions of how well our democracy worked at home. The most farsighted American statesmen shrewdly grasped this fact. In Cold War Civil Rights, the legal historian Mary L. Dudziak quotes a letter from Dean Acheson, then President Truman's Acting Secretary of State, to the chairman of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1947: "An atmosphere of suspicion and resentment ... over the way a minority is being treated in the United States is a formidable obstacle to the development of mutual understanding and trust between the two countries," Acheson wrote. "We will have better international relations when these reasons for suspicion and resentment have been removed [at home]." John F. Kennedy went further, explicitly drawing a parallel between the struggle against Jim Crow and the struggle against colonialism in Africa. "What especially roused the president's ire about both segregation and colonialism," notes Cornell University historian Thomas Borstelmann in his forthcoming book, The Cold War and the Color Line, "was the hindrance they caused to the struggle against Communism."

This is the tradition on which Bush now draws. His impassioned reminders that Arab- and Muslim-Americans are full citizens, no different from the rest of us, are linked to his assurances to the world that "the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam" and that the United States has no quarrel with Islamic cultures, only with terrorism. His Thursday-night address, with its condemnation of the Taliban for "repressing its own people" and its assertion that radical Islamists "are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century.... [who] follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism" could have been scripted by anti-Communist liberals who believed the cold war was a battle for the "hearts and minds" of developing nations. It is fitting, too, that Bush has turned to NATO, the crown jewel of cold war internationalism, to support the case that the United States, unlike its attackers, is governed by rational, humane principles.

Which, by the way, it really is. It may be true, as Roger Wilkins told Linda Greenhouse, that "a lot of Americans distrust difference of any kind." But how to account for the many Afghans, Sikhs, and others who have been living peaceably among us all these years, accepted by their neighbors? Indeed, even the stories of the terrorists themselves--who blended so readily into their Florida community, sending their kids to public school, driving them to the mall in their Plymouth Voyagers--stand as counterexamples to Wilkins's bleak vision.

American democracy may well face trials in the days ahead. But the contest won't be between security and civil liberties, a delicate balancing act evenin the best of times and never reducible to a simple either/or. The meaningful conflict today is between reason and hysteria. Our government seems to understand this. The same can't be said for those who, in the guise of vigilance, appear hungry for evidence that America is becoming the police state of their dreams.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.

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