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National security vs civil liberties

When there’s an increased threat of terrorism we overreact out of fear. We try to find people who are dangerous, and instead we find people who are different, and then we decide whatever we do to them is justified if it might make us safer. A lot of times that’s wrong because these are innocent people that we’re hurting. It’s also wrong because it doesn’t actually make us safer.

We saw this happen in World War II with Japanese American internment, one of the worst civil rights violations in our history. I wrote Allegiance to explore how we come to make mistakes like that. What happens to individual people and to government when the nation is afraid. That feeling of fear — the reaction to the decision that people are dangerous — that was something I saw happening in 2007 when I starting writing this book and it even continues today.

Protecting American ideals

It’s always easy to look at these things in retrospect and say, ‘That was an overreaction, that was a mistake.’ National security policies are meant to protect us yet they frequently curtail individual liberties and hurt minorities. We keep doing it so it seems much harder to figure out what’s going wrong all the time. When I wrote Allegiance I wanted to look at how these decisions come about; how did internment happen in America; how did we stray so far from our values. I also wanted to make the point that we have the Constitution to try to stop us from making these kinds of mistakes. We have a Constitution that’s supposed to set up rules that protect everyone all the time — yet frequently these rules bend in times of crisis. The ultimate lesson to take from that is the nation and Constitution can be no better than the people. Ultimately, the true source of protection for the right of the minority is popular sentiment.

Civic engagement

National security policy, the reach of government power, and the ability of the government to curtail some people’s liberties in the name of protecting others is an interest of mine. I’ve written law review articles about it… I’ve given talks about it… but that only reaches a set of people who read law review articles or people who are interested in academic presentations. I think you need a much broader engagement among American citizens if we’re going to avoid these kids of mistakes again. I was hoping to reach a broader audience because the message that I have is for all Americans. It’s about patriotism, it’s about America, it’s about what our duty is to our country and to our ideals. And that’s not a message for an academic audience, that’s a message for everyone who cares about this country.

FDR’s authorization of Japanese American internment

With regard to FDR, my family member who authorized the internment…  I think FDR was a great president, I think FDR was a good man, but part of the story that I’m trying to tell is that in times of crisis, even good people can do bad things. Good people for good reasons will do bad things mainly because they’re acting out of fear; they overestimate the threat that some people pose. And you can’t always trust someone because they seem like the right sort of person. That was FDR’s mistake, in my view: he trusted the generals and War Department officials who were like him, even though they were giving bad advice.

Truth in fiction

There’s quite a lot of me in the main character. He gradually comes to doubt the wisdom and rightness of what the government is doing in the name of protecting the country — that is a process that I went through in the aftermath of September 11th. I started out convinced the government really knew what it was doing, it wouldn’t do anything wrong, it could be trusted to get the right people. But then evidence started piling up suggesting we had some of the wrong people. The government was making mistakes, just not admitting it. We need to think a lot more critically about what’s being done in our name.

Recent news about Japanese American internment

People seem to be forgetting what actually happened during World War II. Some Japanese nationals were interned, but also about 100,000 American citizens who posed no threat to the country—and whose understanding of Japanese language and culture could have been very helpful—were detained in camps on no basis other than race.

People are consequently drawing the wrong lesson if they suggest, like Mayor Bowers and retired General Wesley Clarke, that the World War II experience militates in favor of mass detention or exclusion based on race or religion. The lesson is that this was a terrible mistake that compromised American values in a fruitless, and indeed counterproductive, quest for security.

A final word

Over again, usually—but not always—in wartime, we react out of fear. We overreact; we hurt innocent people. Later we regret it. We say it won’t happen again…but it does. We the people need to stand up and say, ‘That’s not my America. My America doesn’t do these things.’

We will win this struggle — there is no doubt of that. But we may well suffer more loss along the way. What is within our control is not whether we will be safe, but whether we will be good.

Read Paris and the Past by Kermit Roosevelt >