bainbridge-evacuation.thumbnail.jpgThere was a striking story this week in the Colorado Springs Gazette about the children of Japanese-American internees returning to Camp Amache, the place where they were held during World War II. It talks about the heavy human toll paid by the victims of that episode, as well as the way we’ve managed to dump it all down the national memory hole:

The buildings are gone, sold by the government after the war, but the camp remains, an overgrown, snake-infested patchwork of foundations. A National Historic Landmark, it is accessible to the public but rarely visited, a forgotten, open secret of the past.

"It’s something we don’t necessarily like to talk about," said University of Denver professor Bonnie Clark, overseeing the archaeological survey. "We like to think this isn’t the kind of thing we do."

But it is the kind of thing we do — or at least, are about to do again:

The Justice Department is considering establishing a new policy that would allow the FBI to target Americans for investigation even in the absence of evidence or other compelling indications that the person was breaking a law, according to the Associated Press.

The policy, being considered as part of the attorney general’s guidelines to the FBI, would allow the agency to conduct racial profiling — potentially singling out Muslim- and Arab-Americans — and to open preliminary terrorism investigations against targets simply on the basis of patterns established through data mining public records and other information.

The agency would be allowed to profile targets based on their race and activities, such as travel to the Middle East or any other part of the world associated with terrorism. But race would be only one factor in the decision to open an investigation.

Now, I’m sure this news makes Michelle Malkin all warm and fuzzy. After all, that was the point of her execrable defense of the internment — it showed that racial profiling was a perfectly reasonable enterprise, according to her logic.

But the fact is that racial profiling actually makes us more vulnerable to terrorism because it exposes our anti-terror strategy to being gamed: terrorists can more effectively elude notice by enlisting operatives who do not fit the profile. In other words, it simply doesn’t work.

If there were reasons to believe they were getting desperate, we could at least understand why the FBI wants to indulge in racial profiling in its search for terrorism suspects (since at best it offers the illusion that they’re doing something). But considering that there have been no significant terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, this just doesn’t make sense.

There is also the issue of its effectiveness. As Mike German pointed out last year:

But a quick look at population statistics shows that racial profiling will likely be just as unproductive as random searches. The tragic shooting of a Brazilian electrician who was mistaken for an Arab terrorist by British undercover policemen demonstrates the difficulty of identifying race by merely looking at someone. But even if police here in the United States could be trained to properly identify Arab Americans on sight, only about 1 in 4 would actually turn out to be Muslim. The vast majority — 63 percent, according to a 2002 Zogby poll, are Christian. So much for the clash of civilizations.

If you wanted to stop Muslims here in America you’d have better luck targeting South Asians (such as Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshi and Afghans), who make up the largest percentage (33 percent) of the American Muslim population, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of State. Southeast Asians make up an additional 1.3 percent. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that by profiling Muslims, we can exempt all East Asians from suspicion, but I have a feeling most police officers would have as much trouble distinguishing East Asians from South Asians as they do Arabs from Brazilians.

Moreover, there is a larger issue at play as well. Peter Siggins, California’s Chief Deputy Attorney General, explained this a few years ago:

Ethnicity alone is not enough. If ethnic profiling of middle eastern men is enough to warrant disparate treatment, we accept that all or most middle eastern men have a proclivity for terrorism, just as during World War II all resident Japanese had a proclivity for espionage.

And as I explained in Strawberry Days, the Japanese American internment episode is actually a vivid historical example of how wrongheaded racial profiling really is:

… [I]t remains inescapable that the model of mass internment that emerges from the historical record of World War II does not, as we have seen, offer the slightest shred of evidence that racial profiling is either effective or wise, especially not when it comes to protecting national security and serving the public interest. The overwhelming weight of the postwar evidence is that the internment prevented very little, if any, sabotage or espionage. Moreover, even beyond its transparent unjustness, the damage to the integrity of the Constitution, and the dangerous precedents it set, the internment of the Japanese Americans was an unfathomable waste. It demonstrably undermined the war effort, and proved not to be worth a penny of the billions of taxpayer dollars it wasted.

In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the actual enterprise itself cost—rounding up 120,000 people by rail car and shipping them first to “assembly centers”; building ten “relocation centers” in remote locales, and then shipping the evacuees into them; maintaining and administering the centers for another three years, which included overseeing programs to help internees find work outside the camps; feeding, clothing, and educating the entire population of internees during this time; and then helping them to relocate near their former homes once the camps closed—there were $37 million more in initial reparations costs in 1948, and then $1.2 billion more in the later reparations approved by Congress in 1988.

At the same time, the Japanese on the Pacific Coast, who occupied some 7,000 farms in the “Military Exclusion Zone,” actually were responsible for the production of nearly half of all the fresh produce that was grown for consumption on the Coast (the Japanese also shipped out a great deal of produce to the Midwest and East). Indeed, Nikkei farms held virtual monopolies in a number of crops, including peppers, snap beans, celery and strawberries, and a large portion of the lettuce market.

As we saw in the case of the Bellevue farms, a handful of enterprising whites throughout the coastal communities decided to try running the Japanese farms with the hope of making a killing from the crops. But labor was so short that not one of these enterprises lasted beyond about five weeks, and none of them had a successful harvest. Nearly all of these farms lay fallow for the next four years. This major loss of production of fresh vegetables clearly harmed the war effort on the home front, and played a significant role in triggering the rationing that came during the war years.

So if racial profiling not only doesn’t work, but creates a panoply of problems both at the time and afterward, that raises the question: Why do it, then?

Well, in an administration that has been all about accruing fresh powers over the civilian population, the answer to that may be one with truly ominous overtones.

David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.

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