Principles of liberty and justice always draw a focus on the Fourth of July. In 1852 Frederick Douglass used the occasion to bring attention to the gross injustice of slavery, telling an anti-slavery audience in Rochester, N.Y.: "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. . . . This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
On this Fourth of July, what must Muslims in America be thinking? Do they feel within or beyond the pale of our national celebration?
Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a report last month called "U.S.: Scores of Muslim Men Jailed Without Charge." The groups charge that after Sept. 11, 2001, the Justice Department, operating behind a wall of secrecy, thrust scores of Muslim men living in this country into a world of indefinite detention without charge because of baseless accusations of terrorist links. The men -- 70 in all -- were held as "material witnesses." Sixty-four were of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Seventeen were U.S. citizens. All but one were Muslims. Many weren't told why they were arrested and were not given immediate access to lawyers or allowed to see the evidence against them. The report said that court proceedings were conducted against the men behind closed doors, and that all the court documents were sealed. "Almost half of the [men] were never brought before a grand jury or court to testify. The U.S. government has apologized to 13 for wrongfully detaining them. Only a handful were ever charged with crimes related to terrorism," according to the report.
In a time of national peril, protecting America from terrorists should be paramount, you might argue. Yes, but pulling Muslims of Middle Eastern descent off the streets for indefinite incarceration because they have worked, dined or prayed with someone who looks like them or has a similar name and is under suspicion as a possible terrorist -- this is inconsistent with our notions of justice and the full and free exercise of rights. Think about it as we commemorate our anniversary. And please don't pooh-pooh the fear that race or national origin could be used as the basis for the U.S. government's mistreatment of people in this country during a time of war. To do that is to ignore history.
"A Jap's A Jap," read the headline on a Washington Post editorial on April 15, 1943. That was a quotation from an American general concerning thousands of Americans who had been moved against their will from the Pacific Coast after Pearl Harbor because of their racial background. The commander of the evacuation and relocation, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, declared: "A Jap's a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. . . . The West Coast is too vital and too vulnerable to take any chances."
And just like that, as The Post observed, without having been charged with any violation of law or sentenced by any court and having been found guilty of nothing except the peculiar pigmentation of their skins, these native-born Americans of Japanese ancestry, known at the time as "Nisei," were rounded up by the government and held indiscriminately.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were still around in World War II. But we also had the panic of Pearl Harbor, governmental zeal and prejudice, as expressed by Sen. Tom Stewart, a Tennessee Democrat who, in arguing for his bill to seize all Japanese living in the United States regardless of where they were born, told the Senate: "Where there is a drop of Japanese blood there is Japanese treachery."
And, of course, the oxen being gored were not America's majority.
The Post, arguing against the continued internment, warned in a Dec. 17, 1943, editorial: "Every American has a direct interest in protecting the rights of these citizens of Japanese ancestry, for our own rights may be vitally linked to theirs."
Continuing the editorial campaign into 1944, The Post observed that excluding Japanese Americans based on nothing more than racial hostility raised an ugly threat to the fundamental principles of American life. "If the freedom of citizens can be restricted because of the spelling of their names, then none of us can claim more than a temporary and illusory hold upon freedom."
Ah, you might say, that was then. It was a time when the Hood River American Legion Post took out an advertisement in a local paper urging Japanese not to return to Hood County, Ore.; when the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Gardena, Calif., refused to put the names of Japanese Americans on the World War II honor rolls and scratched off the names that had been posted; when a barber in Parker, Ariz., refused to cut the hair of a wounded soldier because he was Japanese American.
All that, you say, is in the past -- another time in America. Well, yes. But consider June 2005:
* A man is sentenced for firebombing a mosque in El Paso.
* A Koran is desecrated with human waste in Nashville.
* A bag stuffed with burned Korans is left in front of an Islamic center in Blacksburg, Va.
* A mosque is burned to the ground in Adelanto, Calif.
* An Islamic school is vandalized for the third time in Miami.
As my son Stephen, a former federal prosecutor, would remind me: There is a weakness in contrasting private acts of violence with government activity after Sept. 11, 2001, and during World War II. And, he would want you to know, there are several reasons why people held as material witnesses don't testify before grand juries -- some of which have to do their own decisions. Finally, he posits that some so-called legal analysis of government actions borders on the hysterical and biased. Granting all that, and I do, there is still ample reason to be concerned.
Frederick Douglass asked in the 1852 Fourth of July commemoration: "Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"
In 2005 the question may be asked once more: Whose Fourth of July is it?