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The profiling puzzle

EVER SINCE the Sept. 11 attack on America by radical Islamic terrorists, the use of ethnic and religious profiling in assessing security risks has been a subject of controversy. In this debate, the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II has been often cited as a cautionary tale. Now, a conservative author and columnist, Michelle Malkin, has come out with a book provocatively titled "In Defense of Internment: The Case for `Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror."

In Malkin's view, a misguided guilt complex about the Japanese internment is keeping us from taking necessary homeland security measures based on ethnic profiling. And so she sets out to debunk "politically correct myths" -- such as the notion that the relocation and internment of about 112,000 ethnic Japanese, two-thirds of them American citizens, was a product of wartime hysteria and racism rather than a reasonable response to a clear and present danger.

"In Defense of Internment" does make a convincing case that some Japanese aliens and even Japanese-Americans had pro-Japan sympathies, and that the Japanese military was working to recruit agents in their ranks. But does this amount to a case for internment?

Eric Muller, a University of North Carolina law professor and author of the 2001 book "Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese-American Draft Resisters in World War II," who has debated Malkin on the Internet, agrees that "there were valid reasons, both in intelligence information and from what was generally known, for the government to take some sort of protective action touching Japanese aliens and most probably at least some of the so-called "Kibei," American citizens who had been sent to Japan for their education" -- but no basis for the nature and scope of the actions that were taken. Nothing in "The Case for Internment" proves otherwise.

In her debunking zeal, Malkin hardly mentions the virulent anti-Japanese racism that was pervasive in America at the time, and was whipped up by the government and the media. Her excuse (offered on her website) is that the issue has been already extensively covered by anti-internment authors. Yet surely, any analysis of the factors leading to the internment must consider racism as part of the whole picture.

"The Case for Internment" is equally disingenuous on other points. Disputing the idea that the ethnic Japanese were selectively targeted, Malkin notes that people of German and Italian descent were also interned or evacuated from high-risk areas. But she glides over crucial differences. The targeted German and Italian ethnics were aliens, not American citizens. (Japanese aliens were barred from US citizenship under the racist policies of that era; only their US-born children became citizens.) And most internees of European origin were targeted on suspicion of specific subversive activities, not solely for their ancestry.

"The Case for Internment" also assails the "myth" that the internment and relocation camps were "Nazi-style death camps." But who claims that they were? This is a classic straw man. Malkin has waxed indignant at the charge that she whitewashes conditions in the camps. Yet she devotes exactly three sentences to the shootings of residents by guards, while extensively discussing the camps' various amenities and the petty complaints of some internees.

Malkin denounces the monetary reparations and apologies from the US government to all surviving internees, including those who may really have been spies and subversives. Well, that's what happens when you lump together an entire ethnic group and don't bother to sort out the innocent from the guilty.

Ironically, the profiling measures Malkin advocates today, such as selective monitoring of aliens and visitors from countries with terrorist links, are moderate and fairly sensible. She is right that it's ludicrous to invoke Japanese internment as a parallel. But surely, defending something as extreme as mass internment can only undermine her case. The people Malkin dubs "profiling alarmists" argue that if you accept any ethnic profiling, you're on a slippery slope to defending internment camps. And Malkin does her best to prove it for them.

But this doesn't mean that Malkin's book -- the new featured selection of the Conservative Book Club -- is harmless. Among the conservative faithful, it is likely to promote anti-immigrant bias, contempt for civil liberties, and the attitude that acknowledging the racism of our past is for namby-pamby liberals or America-hating lefties.

And that's a shame. It was President Reagan, a great conservative, who first authorized reparations for Japanese-American internees and issued an apology for the injustice done to them. For conservatives to embrace Malkin's extremism is a betrayal of his legacy.

Cathy Young is a co-editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.  

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