TPM Cafe: Opinion

Don't Overreact To Chattanooga By Restricting Civil Liberties For Muslims

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AP Photo / AP

However, because Abdulazeez, unlike Roof, was part of an immigrant family, and a Muslim immigrant family at that, his actions have led to renewed debates over whether and how the U.S. government should respond to Muslim Americans and their communities in the wake of such terrorist attacks. As was the case with the Tsarnaev family in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, there have been calls from the right to deport the entire Abdulazeez family. More broadly, the attack has already brought back into our communal conversations arguments for such sweeping measures as surveillance of mosques and Muslim American communities and increased law enforcement profiling of Muslim Americans (even those, like Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, with no overt presence on watch lists).

Such arguments have been part of our political and social landscape since Sept. 11, 2001, and of course are closely connected to broader debates about the Patriot Act, NSA surveillance, and the balance between safety and civil liberties. Yet it’s likewise important to contextualize these contemporary debates in a much longer-standing, if not indeed originating, American history: our consistent tendency, in times of war and global conflict, to push for restrictions of civil liberties and rights for immigrant and ethnic American communities.

This week retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran for president as a Democrat in 2004, declared that we should detain radicalized American Muslims. “If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”

Clark's comments call to mind the most overt and famous example of such wartime restrictions: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But even the terrible historic error of the Japanese internment took place within the context of a declared war against a particular nation, and thus ended with the peace treaty that concluded that war. That distinguishes it from the far more ambiguous, sweeping, and unending concept of the “war on terror” in which we still remain today.

Such undeclared, uncertain states of international conflict have in fact provided the context for many of our national attacks on civil liberties, including the first. In the late 1790s, in the midst of the long, undeclared war with France that comprised much of America’s first decade of official existence, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). These four bills sought to respond to perceived threats against the nation from French immigrants and related communities, including by creating legal categories such as “Alien Friends” and “Alien Enemies” and by offering a stunningly broad definition of “Sedition”: “if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.”

The language and legal concepts of the Alien and Sedition Acts were echoed very closely in the 1917 Espionage Act and 1918 Sedition Act. Although these laws were passed during World War I, they were responding far more fully to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and to concurrent fears of “Bolsheviks,” “anarchists,” and other (generally) foreign radicals within the United States. Moreover, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s use of these laws to extend restrictions on civil liberties and rights continued well past the war’s end, as exemplified by the Palmer Raids of the 1919-20 Red Scare. As in our contemporary moment, the Red Scare comprised a period in which any foreign-born Americans (and those in implicated ethnic American communities) were suspect, part of this nebulous, international plot against the nation, and subject to threats of surveillance, imprisonment, and deportation.

Palmer and the Red Scare provided a clear template for the Cold War’s equivalent attacks on American civil liberties and rights, in the form of Joseph McCarthy’s leadership of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Once again, an undeclared and unending international conflict provided the impetus for a sweeping set of restrictions and attacks on a wide range of American communities, not only suspected “Communists” but also homosexuals, radical artists, and many others. All these targets were consistently defined by McCarthy and his allies as, in their perspectives and goals as well as their actual heritage, “foreign” to the United States and its values and identity. And it was that foreign-ness which both aligned these targeted communities with external enemies and justified the attacks on their civil liberties and rights.

In each of these prior moments, as in our own, there were certainly individuals and groups within (as well as outside of) America who threatened harm to the nation. Yet in each prior case, the government laws and policies have come to be seen, in their own era as well as in the judgment of history, as troubling and destructive overreactions, as trading far too much of our communal ideals for the illusions of complete safety and security. In this moment of another undeclared, seemingly unending global conflict, as some among us once again threaten the lives of their fellow Americans and we debate whether and how to respond as a nation, we would do well to remember those histories.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.