Terrorist violence can make the previously unthinkable suddenly seem acceptable. The levels of surveillance introduced after 9/11 could have been considered reasonable only in the climate of collective panic that the attacks induced. But this week’s reaction to the fatal shooting of four Marines and a Navy petty officer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a 24-year-old Muslim has to win the prize for the worst proposed civil liberties infringement to come out of a violent disruption. No matter how high tensions may have run after the Boston Marathon bombing or 9/11, few dared to propose what figures of both left and right have now suggested: the segregation and internment of Muslim citizens.
The first mention of internment came from a somewhat unexpected source: Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democrat known for his progressive-oriented presidential campaign in 2004. Interviewed on MSNBC in the shooting’s aftermath, Clark said the U.S. needed to increasingly get tough on “radicalized” individuals. He spoke favorably of the internment camps set up during World War II, saying that “if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech. We put him in a camp.” Lest there be any doubt what Clark was advocating, he insisted that for radicalized Muslims, “it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”
One might point out, in the first place, that the idea of detaining people for “the duration of the conflict” means, in practice, imprisoning them forever. Since the “war on terrorism” is a fight without end, it will never have some ticker-tape-strewn V-Day, and Clark’s suggestion is for the government to deem particular Muslims too radical to live freely and isolate them permanently in camps.
But more generally, one might inform him that the United States’ heinous civil liberties abuses during World War II are often considered a particularly dark patch in the nation’s history. The rounding up of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans — and their placement in squalid camps — was a racist disgrace that the country apologized for in 1988 and left traumatic scars that last to this day. The lesson supposedly learned was that the humiliation and segregation of an entire ethnic group is an indefensible assault on principles of dignity and equality. Clark, however, appears to have taken this cautionary tale as a useful suggestion.
Yet he was not alone in his call for reviving one of the worst civil liberties abuses in U.S. history. Franklin Graham, a son of pastor Billy Graham and a hugely popular figure among Christian conservatives in his own right, also called on his countrymen to treat Muslims the way the U.S. treated German- and Japanese-Americans during World War II. But Graham went even further than Clark, who wished to target only those deemed radical. For Graham, Muslims writ large are the problem, and he announced that the U.S. should suspend all immigration to the country by Muslims, period.
“Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized, and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad,” Graham said.
The constitutionality of such measures is plainly dubious. As much as Clark may insist that support of Nazi Germany didn’t receive free speech protection, contemporary First Amendment jurisprudence strongly begs to differ. In the Supreme Court’s 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio decision, it unanimously struck down a statute that criminalized the “advocacy of terrorism.” The court protected an individual’s right to advocate the violent overthrow of the government, and that standard still holds. This is before we even reach the question of the constitutional rights to equal protection and due process of law, which stand in the way of a instituting a vast race-based segregation program.
But one shouldn’t maintain excessive confidence in constitutional protections. The Supreme Court’s 1945 decision in Korematsu v. United States, which upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Japanese internment program as constitutional, still technically stands. And the Guantánamo Bay detention facility has spent well over a decade as a symbol of the flimsiness of constitutional guarantees of due process. No matter how clear the text of the Constitution might appear, Clark is right about one thing: During wartime, the pretense of free speech protection has a tendency to evaporate.
As the people of Chattanooga recover from a disturbing act of violence, it is a useful time to reflect on the way Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II (likewise German-Americans during World War I). Those periods are ignoble examples of the way war can induce terrible nationwide prejudices, with devastating effects on the lives of ordinary people. And they should remind us of the speed with which frightening erosions of civil liberties can occur in a climate of fear.