My Students Predicted the Future Better than I Did

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Ms. Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and former Professor of History at the University of California Davis.

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WHO WOULD HAVE imagined how swiftly the American government could threaten our precious civil liberties and basic rights in the name of fighting terrorism?

Looking back, I now realize that my former students saw it coming.

The year was 1999. Bill Clinton was president, the stock market was soaring,and the 175 students in my history course at UC Davis had no reason to fear the kind of secret detainment or government surveillance the Bush administration has already employed and that Congress has just sanctioned.

But they did. This is California and three-quarters of the students in that course were either children or grandchildren of immigrants. Many felt vulnerable to attacks on their culture, religion and patriotism.

I had just finished lecturing on the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II and had shown them a documentary film on that shameful episode in our nation's past. They had also read "Desert Exile," a powerful memoir written by Yoshiko Uchida, a Berkeley student whose youth and education were cut short when the government abruptly ordered her family to report to an internment camp.

"So, could it happen again?" I asked them. "And if so, under what conditions?" It was a sensitive subject, so I asked them to write their responses on paper, without signing their names.

Their distrust of the government was surprisingly strong. Now, their responses seem eerily prophetic.

Two-thirds of the class believed the United States would be willing to round up "hyphenated Americans" and send them to internment camps. Eighty-five percent of the class identified Arab Americans as the most likely targets of government repression.

One student wrote, "I'm a child of immigrants. My parents are Iranians and, judging from popular culture, I don't think Americans understand or trust us very much. That's why we'd be viewed as unpatriotic and could become scapegoats."

"I'm a fifth-generation Californian," wrote another student. "If there was some act of terrorism, people would instantly assume that Arabs or Muslims did it. So citizens of Arab descent, much like the Japanese Americans, would be treated like possible traitors. And if there was another war with Iraq, well I wouldn't want to be an Iraqi American."

"I'm a Muslim," confided one student. "I don't think it would take much for this government to view us as serious threats to the U.S." Another student added, "You'll probably recognize me because I'm the only veiled student in the class. But what you probably don't know is how much I fear American hostility toward people of the Islamic faith."

"Yes, something awful could happen again," wrote a student who identified himself as a computer science major. "But I don't think our government would round up people and send them away again. The government doesn't need to isolate people in internment camps. It can now use electronic surveillance to target its suspects. All it has to do is create a huge electronic database and it'll know everything about everyone. That's the way the government will control people in the future."

This last remark is particularly chilling. Unlike his computer-challenged history professor, this young man grasped the future and understood the dangers of an electronic Big Brother.

Now, as I worry about John Poindexter running a "Total Information Awareness" electronic database in the Pentagon, I wonder where this student is and what he's doing with that knowledge.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

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Gus Moner - 1/11/2003

Mr Perkins seems to have got carried away with his argument until it made no sense at all. By the time we get to LBJ, the diatribe is nonsensical. Yet, a good point is lost in Mr Perkins’ chosen delivery; that many liberties and protections that our forefathers guaranteed and succeeding generations enjoyed, have indeed been washed away in the hysteria of each successive war or ‘crisis’.

One need only read to learn historical events that touch this topic to confirm it. Every war or moral crisis (Mr. McCarthy) has resulted in a witch hunt and a tightening of the government’s control over the citizenry. We didn’t lose all rights, analysis points up to a much lessened level of privacy and freedom than say, before 1860. Successively, we have been deprived of more and more discretion, privacy and freedom of action.

Moreover, as each new technology has entered into our lives, it has been turned around and used against the citizen. The telephone allowed eventually for wiretaps on our private conversations, Internet paved the way for monitoring our correspondence. ¿Would ever our ancestors have allowed the opening of our letters in our post box? Yet now, we are obliged to believe this is an inalienable right of government. The cell phone can now be used to pin point our location, and if desired, shove a missile down our throats. Eventually, wired homes will be used as Orwell predicted in his book 1984. More and more people are being registered and monitored, with the excuse of taxes, security or whatever. The question remains, where have freedom of speech, movement and right to privacy in our homes and lives gone? How much more will we have to forfeit to the almighty state still?

Orson Olson - 1/8/2003

RIGHT said Fred--er, Gary! The recent Michiagan case of a hateful Arab-American whom the courts--quite properly--relaesed, simply underscores your point.

However, there is the gray area of handling noncombatant enemies like the Padila case. Courts have not been uncircumspect of the powers granted to our government!The Economist recently intoned that the U.S. needs real terrorist legislation.

Yet, again, I doubtful we really want to emulate our less civil libertarian minded Europeans. The Wash Post had an op-ed by a George Washington Law School Prof (whose name eludes me jsut now) who made the opposite case of our hysterical Californian. Why don't these people ever dialog?


Garry Perkins - 1/7/2003

I never cease to be amazed at how often we have lost "our precious civil liberties and basic rights." From reading left-wing polemics through history one can clearly see how all Southern whites have been viciously oppressed since 1865. We can later learn how we all lost all our rights with the US entry into WWI. We lost them again in the 1920's due to Capitalist exploitation. Roosevelt, along with his social fascist cronies, was leading us straight into an alliance with Hitler, until heroic Stalin beat him to it. Stalin's sell-out was not fascistic, of course, it was revolutionary.

Then we lost all of our "precious civil liberties and basic rights" again after WWII. McCarthy was going to destroy us all by screaming "Reds!" For some reason every old trade unionist I meet who remembers the period seems to love this guy. They hate all Republicans, but love him. I guess union organizers who are not communists are obviously fascists seeking to take away our "precious civil liberties and basic rights."

We continued to lose our "precious civil liberties and basic rights" in the 1960s under that other great fascist LBJ. LBJ lacked the free spirit of Ho Chi-min. Dissenting voices knew that they were losing their freedom. They supported great freedom-loving places like the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. The official killing Cham, Black Thai, and other ethnic minorities by a state is supposedly quite liberating. For some reason Viet nationalism and racism is good. LBJ's Great Society and promotion of equality was bad.

Again we lost our "precious civil liberties and basic rights" with the imperialist war in Kosovo. We violated Serbia's freedom-loving society and continue to oppress the poor souls of Kosovo.

It is only right that we give up our "precious civil liberties and basic rights" again to hate muslims. For some reason the Arabs I work with were not arrested. Of course they never went to Afganistan. They never worked in the drug trade. They never supported terrorist organizations. No matter how much they hate Israeli terrorism in the West Bank, they never gave money to Arab terrorists. So they never were interrogated. No one here would ever question their loyalty. Poor white trash may stare at the airport. Airport security is more or less racist, but they have not lost their rights. The current trouble will blow over. Their rights will be maintained. Professor Rosen may not know this, but we live in a racist society. It sucks, but we all need to try to make it better. THis is not a rights problem, but a color problem. We are working to reslove it. Hysterical rants about losing our "precious civil liberties and basic rights" do not help. Asians need to be seen as real Americans, not foreigners. African-American men need to be seen as men, not crimnials. Arabs need to be seen as loyal AMericans, not foreign terrorists.

Whites have had rights since 1776. The only issue has been white people's denial of others rights. This is the issue. The status of our liberty has only gotten better over time, regardless of what polemics scream. Do not believe your students' consspiracy theories. They were wrong in 1865, they were wron in 1917, they were wrong in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 90s and today. Our racism problems are horrible, but we have handled it better than any great society in history. We will continue to do so.