Wednesday, July 22, 2015


The Usual Suspects

There is an old adage that goes: those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. But what happens when someone knows a little bit about history, but gets it all wrong? Take Wesley Clark, for example. Katherine Krueger reports:

U.S. General Wesley Clark floated a plan Friday for dealing with so-called "lone wolf" terrorists on American soil: imprison them in internment camps before they get the chance to attack the U.S.

In an appearance on MSNBC to discuss the shootings at Chattanooga military sites, the retired general and former Democratic candidate for president said we should be dealing with "disloyal" American citizens who've been "radicalized" the same way the U.S. did during World War II -- and called on allies to do the same.

"In World War II, if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn't say that was freedom of speech, we put them in a camp, they were prisoners of war," Clark said.

He also said: "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 suggested that American Muslims could come to embrace radical Islam after losing a girlfriend or if "their family doesn't feel happy here."

Most likely Clark was thinking of the internment camps set up during WWII that held 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Those camps were set up during a racist panic on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and were soon regarded as a waste of resources and eventually as a national embarrassment. Nothing similar was done or even proposed for the millions of Americans of German descent: partly because a bout of anti-German hysteria had already occurred during the first world war and was properly remembered as pointless and stupid, partly because we were more likely to distinguish between Nazis and other Germans, and partly because German-Americans were white. Few of us today realize how deep and vicious American racism against Japanese and Chinese had been up through the 1940s. (See John W. Dower: War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War; there must be a more general book, but I haven't read one.)

As for Clark's assertion that during WWII "supporter[s] of Nazi Germany" were arrested and treated as "prisoners of war" there isn't much evidence. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has written a thorough review of American prosecution of supposed enemies both before and after Pearl Harbor (see Not Just Japanese Americans: The Untold Story of U.S. Repression During 'The Good War') and he does cite cases where the US used the Alien Enemies Act (dating from 1798) to incarcerate Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants (3,846 of them within 72 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack). There were subsequent prosecutions for sedition, espionage, and even treason -- several Americans were charged in absentia with treason for making anti-American propaganda broadcasts (including poet Ezra Pound and one of the women known as "Tokyo Rose"). A few thousand conscientious objectors were rounded up and put into camps akin to jails, and the anti-sedition laws were used to repress various fringe groups, like Trotskyites and Jehovah's Witnesses. But aside from the Japanese-Americans, I don't see anything in Hummel's long list that suspended judicial processes or that treated American citizens as prisoners of war.

I should interject here that just because the US did something in WWII doesn't make it right or appropriate, either then or now. Every American war started with an effort to suppress dissent, ostensibly to form and demonstrate national unity but not incidentally to cover the warmongers' asses. In WWI dissenters as famous as Eugene V. Debs were chucked into jail for "crimes" that even Wesley Clark would now recognize as free speech. (Debs was jailed for giving an actualspeech.) If FDR's WWII government has a reputation as less repressive, it's most likely because the war was much less unpopular. Moreover, both wars were followed by notorious "red scare" periods: the latter, recalled as McCarthyism, peaked during the Korean War, and was most effective at cowering opposition to that war.

McCarthy himself flamed out shortly after the Korean War ended, but by then anti-communism had become deeply entrenched throughout the government, academia, and even labor unions, even while HUAC, the John Birchers, and Barry Goldwater seemed like fringe figures. The Vietnam War wasn't marketed (as the later Iraq Wars would be). It was just entered into reflexively, with as little thought as the "gunboat diplomacy" operations of the early 20th century, until it swelled to the point of becoming America's longest and least popular war. The FBI did what it could to suppress dissent, but opposition to the war grew too extensive to quell with prosecutions -- not that the government didn't try (e.g., the Chicago 7). If nothing else, opposition to the Vietnam War established that Americans have the right to assemble and speak out against the nation's wars.

Still, the war party doesn't like dissent, and they go to great lengths if not so much to suppress it then to crowd it out. The war drums so dominated the media after 9/11/2001 that it was impossible to raise even the most modest of doubts in public. I went to peace demonstrations in New York City in the following weeks, but how many of you even knew that they happened? None of New York's Congressfolk voted against the war authorization. Fourteen years later that war seems to be on autopilot, periodically refreshed by minor incidents like the shootings in Chattanooga Clark was responding to, because we cannot bring ourselves to reconsider how we got into this mess in the first place.

Returning to Clark's proposal, we have to ask: (1) what is it he's really asking for? (2) how does that reflect on us as a people and a nation? and (3) will it work anyway? Unfortunately, he hasn't made even the first question easy. Clarks speaks of "internment camps": the only real precedent for that is the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Clark speaks of "prisoners of war" and "segregat[ing] them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict." In the context of WWII that can only mean captives who were wearing enemy uniforms, but that hardly applies to anything in "the global war on terror," which is not a war against an identifiable nation, nor is it a war that can be expected to terminate clearly in the near future. It is true that some of Bush's lawyers tried to apply parts of the law on "prisoners of war" to some aliens captured abroad, and argued that as the basis for keeping those prisoners at Guantanamo, but Clark is talking about "American muslims" -- a group estimated at anywhere from 5 to 12 million people. He isn't necessarily talking about rounding up all of them: he wants to grab those who are "radicalized," who may as a result of that try to "hurt us."

Even if you take the lower estimate, 5 million American muslims is twice as many people as are currently in jail in the US, so Clark is potentially talking about tripling the size of America's prison complex (already the largest in the world). Of course, most American muslims aren't radicalized (at least not yet), but how do you tell which is which? Clark's suggestion here is to look for young men recently jilted by girlfriends, or whose "family doesn't feel happy here." Criteria like that is rather hard to determine. At the very least, it would require the US to do a lot of spying on our own citizens -- something which is, uh, illegal. (But then any initial division of the population according to religion is also illegal -- a violation of civil rights law.) The points which violate specific laws could conceivably be fixed, but I can think of a bunch of places where such an internment program would bump up against the constitution. The idea that you should lock up people because they might be inclined to commit a future crime is totally alien to American jurisprudence (if not necessarily to American history). My second question above must be answered "no."

As to the third question ("will it work anyway?") it's hard to see any way to answer "yes." For starters, the scheme can fail in two ways: it can intern people who would never have committed crimes, and it can miss people who do. It may seem hard to "proove the negative" but you can get an idea of the former by counting the number of radicalized muslims who have actually committed crimes over the past few years -- the shooter in Chattanooga, the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, the two guys who attacked Pamela Geller's Mohammad-bashing festival in Dallas, a few more here and there -- you can even add in the guys the FBI set up and "stung" and not drive the total up more than a few dozens. How many people would Clark sweep off the streets? If it's only a couple hundred or so the majority would have been jailed unnecessarily and falsely. If it's thousands or more the injustice is only magnified. On the other hand, if you hold the number of detainees down to, say, 5000, you're letting at least 999 of every 1000 muslims off the hook. That almost certainly means that some "terrorists" will blend into the pack and escape internment. Of course, the problem doesn't end there. The program itself, with its blatant discrimination and spying, will radicalize more muslims, while at the same time driving muslim radicals underground, making them harder to detect. Given the already low number of terror incidents due to radicalized muslims, it's quite possible that Clark's internment program would result in many more incidents than it was initially meant to stop. So worse than "not working," Clark's concentration camps are most likely to make the problem worse -- on top of all the other negatives.

It's safe to say that Clark's proposal won't be adopted, but it is interesting that he even bothered to blurt it out. I could come up with a long list of reasons why, but I'll just leave you with three: (1) he hugely overestimates the problem (the number of "terrorist incidents") and has no sense of proportionality versus the muslim population in America; some of this is simple innumeracy (John Allen Paulos' term for people who can't envision relationships between numbers), some is that fear of terrorism is promoted by certain interest groups that profit from it (e.g., the military and its suppliers), and some is common prejudice against islam; (2) he has insufficient respect for America's traditions regarding justice and democracy, favoring power instead; and (3) he refuses to consider the real alternative, which would have the United States withdrawing from its history of interfering with other countries by supporting and encouraging violence (either against those countries or in favor of elites against the people of those countries).