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
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.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle