Are We Kidding Ourselves About Our Great Tradition of the Fair Treatment of The Other?

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Mr. Balto is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with appointments in the African-American Studies and History Departments.

President Obama’s national security speech at the National Archives has, by this point, been both lauded for its oratory and pragmatism, and heavily critiqued for its supposed doctrinal continuations with the Bush administration. Though Obama deserves credit for so forthrightly engaging the issue, with so much at stake (to paraphrase both the President and, ironically, Dick Cheney), I find the critical approach more urgent in examining the problematic aspects here—foremost among them, the belief in the ideological integrity of a policy of “preventive detention.”

Of course, I’m not the first person to engage this problem, but I am troubled by the way that it has been framed: a majority seem to articulate their angst around a supposed collapse or violation of American ideals (see, for example, Thursday’s Institute for Public Accuracy release; or the New York Times article by William Glaberson), when the more wrenching issue here is the idea that the very humanity of these people has been rendered, in a word, revocable. Against the obvious evidence of infringements of human liberty, the brash display of collective narcissism here is startling: like gazing over someone else’s shoulder in a mirror, the popular discourse on this issue looks past the heartbreaking violations of human rights, to instead focus on how it either conflicts with our values or endangers our security.

Of course, the imprisonment of hundreds of Muslims—most often “terrorists” in only the hypothetical sense, held under a guise of criminality yet to come—indeterminately and without charge is, to be sure, antithetical to what we as Americans suppose to be our foundational morality. Yet the reduction of humanity that the stripping of their rights entails is, in practice if not in theory, certainly not without precedent, and it is worth considering the racist underpinnings that both mark this instance and have characterized most of the mass-incarceration movements of the United States, dating back far into the nineteenth century.

From the outset, the westward expansion of the infant nation-state occurred at the profound and brutal expense of Native Americans, who were offered an impossible choice between death and relocation. Socially defined as atavistic impediments to the natural, expansionist progress of the “civilized” nation-state, native peoples were subhumanized and devalued; thus the theft of their land and lives and their ultimate confinement to reservations was rationalized as a necessary, if unfortunate, product of national progress. Their imprisonment, the argument of the white majority went (and goes), was thus justified, for it opened the West for settlement and removed the racialized specter of a threat to white America.

The World War II era witnessed a similar, and even more explicitly racist, national security incarceration project: the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans. Idiomatically placing Japanese-Americans outside the pale of a “loyal” American citizenry, it is telling that the federal government—and, through hegemonic influence, the American people—were willing to explicitly single out that particular group for incarceration, despite the fact that Americans of Germanic descent never experienced anything comparable. Though certainly an uncomfortable notion, the fact remains that the American public appeared overwhelmingly more forgiving to an enemy imbued with whiteness than to one of color.

To bring this forward into the modern context, today American prisons embody what scholar Nikhil Singh has called the “preeminent U.S. racial space.” The black/white disparities in contemporary prison populations are well-documented, perhaps the most striking figure being that blacks comprise approximately 12 percent of the overall population, but nearly half of the prison one; similarly, studies show that when comparable crimes are committed by blacks and whites, the punishment is far more heavy-handed for African-Americans. Combined with the withholding of civil-democratic rights that a felony conviction entails, the black overrepresentation within the prison population renders prisons as distinct sites of “black anti-citizenship.” A racialized “other,” once again, is stripped of rights and locked away in the name of safety and security.

Leonard Peltier once wrote that innocence is the weakest defense, because it is articulated as a singular plea against the “thousand voices” of guilt. The disparities of that equation in the modern context are stretched to their grossest extreme as we return our gaze to the plight of those inmates now at Guantanamo (and soon, it appears to be relocated): the pleas of innocence of a few hundred are readily drowned out by a chorus of millions who all too quickly assign their guilt. It is important, also, to recognize that a hypothetical crime—which is, by definition, the only type of crime that the presidential doctrine of “preventive detention” can combat—is not, under any conscionable legal system, a punishable event. People can invoke “national security” until they bleed the colors of the flag, but it would perhaps do them well to pause for a moment to think of the extraordinarily racist hinge on which this particular national security discourse swings — evidenced, for example, by influential anthropological studies claiming to excavate a monolithic “Arab mind” (see Raphael Patai’s work of that name). It is profoundly disturbing that even military commanders on the ground in Iraq differentiate and racialize the humanity of Arab peoples; as Captain Todd Brown commented, “You’ve got to understand the Arab mind; the only thing they understand is force.” (For a broader study of this, see Nikhil Singh’s article “The Afterlife of Fascism.”)

Additionally, those who decry the continuation of Guantanamo or the idea of continued imprisonment for the prisoners there need to reconsider their appeals to American morality—the crime here is against humanity, not a set of American ethics that has proved unstable at best in its application to non-white persons. Furthermore, we must understand the historical continuity of these violations: the idea of racist imprisonment and internment does not begin (nor, without a dramatic discursive and ideological shift, will it end) here; rather, it arcs back to the infancy of the nation. And so perhaps it is there that the greatest opportunity awaits President Obama, if only he will reach out and take it: the possibility of breaking the incessant, repeated revocations of true humanity that have characterized broader America’s interactions with both its internal minorities and the international for far too long.

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Shirley Weiss - 6/2/2009

I would love to see historical accuracy regarding WWII internment in the United States but I am pessimistic that it is possible. For whatever reason the US government has decided that it is our country's best interest to promote and fund a "Japanese American internment" racial narrative at the expense of historical accuracy regarding the internment of approximately 11,000 German Americans and 3,500 Italian Americans during WWII.

Japanese Americans have an ongoing concerted effort (sanctioned by our government) to dominate the WWII US internment history. The recent $38 million dollar internment camp preservation bill will be used only to tell the JA internment story not the full narrative of US internment. During 2007 German American internees fought hard to be included in the internment camp preservation bill. Regardless of collective efforts and input in the public informational meetings in 2007, German Americans were totally shut out, similar to being shut out of the CWRIC.

German Americans have had a bill in congress for approximately 10 years trying to get an investigation into European American internment.

The WWII internment story is not really an issue of "racism" although it has been sold as such. I am not sure how you can correct the history of internment if “racism” is asserted each and every time any type of investigation is requested. If you notice, current researchers rely on secondary sources for their resource data on internment which has all been written by Japanese Americans, dismally missing in the research are primary documents.

The passage of the $38 million internment camp preservation bill may well serve as the nail in the coffin for historical WWII internment accuracy. It becomes almost impossible to challenge the narrative when it becomes institutionalized by the National Park Service across America.

Why is it totally OK for JA's to be interveners in a court case by a German American internee against the US government? How do JA's get by with not standing up for others who suffered the same indignities and civil rights abuses in some of the same internment camps during WWII and not suffer any vilification? Obviously, they realize the race argument shuts up all detractors. Just look, Chinese claims against Japanese war crimes are dismissed . . . American POW's claims for reparations against the Japanese government are opposed by the US government . . . the intentional starving of German civilians at war's end are silenced . . . German Americans internment will not be included in the camp preservations etc. Certainly, it would be great to find some way to break through the dishonesty that permeates US internment policy but how?

Take a look at this original document on page 361 of FBI files:

Indeed, this document verifies that other considerations such as "economic concerns" of incarcerating large dominant ethnic populations. Doesn't the treatment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii bear this out? The bottom line much fiction has been written about WWII internment policy.

Arthur Jacobs - 6/2/2009

Thank you Mr. Balto! Numbers do not make a difference. As I noted the Holocaust began when the first innocent victim was knowingly sentenced!

Simon Balto - 6/1/2009 a corrective, the first sentence was supposed to end "outside of broader histories of the war period domestically and internationally."

Simon Balto - 6/1/2009

Mr. Jacobs' critique is fair and well-deserved, as I must profess to not being intimately familiar with the history of the German-American war experience outside of . I should have offered a better qualifier in my discussion of the War-era experiences in which I differenciate between Japanese- and German-Americans, by which I mean that I think there is something to be said about the EXTENT to which internment was exacted upon these two ethno-racial groups: according to the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, around 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were imprisoned, representing an enormous proportion of the population. As Mr. Jacobs points out within his own research, 11,000 persons of German descent were interned, though at this point German-Americans were the predominant "ethnic" group in the US. I think there is something to this disparity within the long American tradition of "othering" non-WASPs.

That being said, I wish to offer with utmost profundity that I do not, in saying that, intend to diminish or de-personalize the trauma of the experience of those German detainees and their families. I think, in fact, that the history that Mr. Jacobs is so admirably delving into here is extraordinarily important, for a couple of reasons: first, that this certainly nuances modern histories of exclusion that examine this (and other) periods of national history (my article being a distinct case in point). To that end, this speaks directly to the overarching point within my article: namely, that the US government and the "mainsream" body politic have proven extraordinarily, troublingly reactionary in their readiness to imprison persons whom they deem different than themselves. The national discourse, in these cases, sacrifices humanity at the lexical altars of national security, safety, or loyalty.

Thank you kindly, Mr. Jacobs, for offering a window onto this seemingly overlooked piece of national history.

Arthur Jacobs - 6/1/2009

You are most welcome!

james joseph butler - 6/1/2009

Thanks for pointing out the rank injustice and racist roots of "preventive detention". Guantanamo is part of an American/human tradition of hiding problems. The truth behind the "detainees" and America's relations with the Muslim world for the past century is a long, complicated story, one that is far easier explained via "terrorists". 90-6, in the Senate, nimby cooties. Where's that Magna Carta?

Thank You, Arthur Jacobs for telling me something I did not know.

Arthur Jacobs - 6/1/2009

Mr. Balto needs to do more research on this matter... for he denied that German Americans were interned.

Almost 11,000 were interned; some were held for more than three years after the war had ended; others were deported, including US-born infants and children; some minors were placed in prison in Germany...What Mr. Balto needs to understand is that the Holocaust started when the first innocent victim was placed behind barbed wire....

I am a family was interned! We were shipped to a war-torn starving Germany... others before us were exchanged with the enemy, the Third Reich, and sent to a Germany under siege.

Mr. Balto and your readers can learn more regarding this episode at: