Collective Punishment: Bad Idea Then and Now

What happened to the American ideal of a government that minded its own business as long as its citizens minded theirs and did not break the law?

German and Italian Americans are working with Congress to pass the Wartime Treatment Study Act, which would establish commissions to review injustices suffered by European Americans, European Latin Americans, and Jewish refugees during World War II.

During the war, our government branded as "enemy aliens" 600,000 German Americans and 300,000 Italian Americans. Thousands were interned, and hundreds of thousands were forced to carry special identification cards and had their travel restricted and property seized. Japanese Americans have received recognition for their suffering and wrongful internment, but the plight of German and Italian Americans is less well known.

The Wartime Treatment Study Act is overdue, and its swift passage is necessary before the living memories and first-hand evidence perish with age. Immigrants helped build our nation, and collective guilt and punishment should never be tolerated in a democracy.

Similarly, Muslim Americans should not be punished for the crimes of Osama bin Laden and his followers. Yet, seven years after 9/11, in which nearly 3,000 victims of all colors and creeds were murdered, are we certain that the right people are being punished in the "war on terror"?

Like all Americans, Muslim Americans love their country, care about their neighbors, worry about the economy, hope to send their kids to good schools, and try to cope with the insecurities of modern life. Islam shares much with Christianity and Judaism. Readers of the Koran will find in its pages values similar to those taught in the Ten Commandments.

Yet, Muslim Americans have endured hate speech and insults to their religion from every quarter, from those in Congress who should know better, to those on the pulpit who should do better, to radio shock jocks who are up to no good. Islam is distorted and Muslims are demonized until neither the faith nor the people bear any resemblance to reality.

Muslim Americans endure targeted and over-reaching government policies that amount to collective punishment and guilt by association. Tens of thousands of law-abiding American citizens are watch-listed and detained, searched, and interrogated, especially while traveling.

Thousands of innocent Muslim Americans have been hauled off planes, dragged out of vehicles, illegally searched, fired from jobs, denied citizenship, deported without due process, targeted by surveillance, and subjected to bank account closures. Some onlookers give the thumbs up. Some come to the rescue while others keep silent. Those who complain are labeled unpatriotic.

Perhaps it is a small price to pay. A few lives and families ruined here and there are the price of keeping America safe, so the thinking goes. But do such measures keep us safe?

When repeated across the United States, such tactics amount to the virtual internment of an entire population in an invisible Manzanar. Manzanar was one of the largest internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII. The problem with virtual internment is that its walls can neither be seen nor railed against.

While a watchful eye is trained on Muslim Americans, bureaucrats have profoundly changed our nation's security methods, unleashing a national security and intelligence technology arms race. The new domestic intelligence systems, if abused, will make the population control methods of China and the former Soviet Union seem quaint.

We have allowed our government to spin a tight web around us. Well-intentioned intelligence collection projects—such as the Department of Homeland Security's new Enterprise Records System, the Automated Targeting System, the Border Crossing Information System, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Real ID, the Advance Passenger Information System, Fusion Centers, Total Information Awareness, the MATRIX System, and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)—answer our every security need.

Are we safe yet? What would our American ancestors say? Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man who lauded "self reliance"? Patrick Henry, who preferred death if he could not have liberty? What happened to limited government? What happened to the American ideal of a government that minded its own business as long as its citizens minded theirs and did not break the law? What happened to privacy? Granted, it is the government's business to keep us safe. Yet, the government failed miserably during 9/11 and then again in Hurricane Katrina. And it may fail again, because an overly fearful government loses perspective on the world and, even worse, on the enemy.

Like the vast majority of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during World War II, American Muslims remain loyal and should be treated as such, right here and now, not 50 years from now in hindsight and in the midst of overdue apologies. George Washington cautioned that "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." His wish to keep government on a short leash reminds us that no matter how great the risk and fear of terrorism, we Americans must cling to our fundamental rights. In ceding certain powers and consenting to be governed, we must keep a watchful eye on our government, lest it wrongly punish the innocent and diminish the liberty of good citizens.

Julia A. Shearson is executive director of the Cleveland, Ohio, chapter of the Council on American Islamic-Relations.