Clarence Moriwaki sees something all too familiar in the words used in the War on Terrorism.
"They call them detainees, instead of prisoners," the Bainbridge Island man says of about 1,200 people rounded up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "It's the same kind of Orwellian doublespeak that they used during World War II."
Moriwaki and Mary Woodward fretted recently over coffee after showing me the island's old Eagledale Ferry Dock site. There a small marker commemorates the 227 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, who were rounded up March 30, 1942, and taken from this idyllic island to the Manzanar internment camp in the desolate Mojave Desert. These were the very first of some 120,000 Americans who would lose their freedom in unconstitutional imprisonment lasting up to three years.
"They called them evacuees," said Woodward, whose parents published the Bainbridge Island Review, one of the few newspapers in the nation to consistently criticize the government action. "You evacuate a burning building. These people were taken prisoner."
Moriwaki and Woodward hope the Bainbridge story might help to remind our nation's leaders of the risks of curtailing civil liberties. Within days of passing the Homeland Security Act, Congress also approved a bill that directs the Interior Department to study whether to establish the Eagledale Ferry Dock site under the National Park Service. The Bainbridge committee has artist renderings of a larger memorial keyed around its central message, Nidoto nai yoni. "Let it not happen again."
The bill's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, acknowledges a lesson in its success. "It's the perfect moment, because the kinds of fear and stress that gave rise to (the internments) in 1942 are the same that we're seeing now."
Granted, most "detainees" rounded up after 9/11 reportedly are not American citizens, as most of the World War II prisoners were. Many were illegally in this country and reportedly have been deported. I emphasize "reportedly," because no one can be sure. The federal government has refused to give any information on these detainees and has sought to close immigration hearings and move other proceedings from the court system to military tribunals where they can keep the curtains closed.
That gives Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, fits. "Not to say that some of these people shouldn't be kicked out of the country," she says, "but there needs to be some sort of way for the public to know what the government is doing."
For sure, these are uncertain, scary times that require smarter ways to flush out and apprehend enemies. But what scares me as much as the threat of a terrorist attack is the threat to civil liberties, citizen privacy and public access to government.
Astonishingly, President Bush has put a convicted felon in charge of the Department of Defense's Total Information Awareness program. Former National Security Advisor John Poindexter, who masterminded the Iran-Contra scandal and was saved from a prison sentence for his five convictions because of a technicality, proposes to combine databases to track the dealings of American residents, citizens and otherwise, with no warrants necessary.
And you thought your grocery-store savings card was innocuous, right?
How are we supposed to trust the government won't overstep its bounds with a convicted liar in charge?
Can Congress trust Poindexter? Can Congress protect us? Can we trust Congress?
Before the Homeland Security Act vote in the House, Inslee entered into the record a statement trying to clarify that the act was not an endorsement of Poindexter's plan. He had proposed a bipartisan colloquy, which would have carried more weight, but Republican leadership refused.
A feisty, inquisitive press is one way that citizens have been able to keep tabs on their government and hold officials accountable. The press' watchdog role has never been more important, but its abilities are being curtailed. Even before the 9/11 attacks, Bush was buttoning down access to government. Under the Clinton administration, the standard for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests was to disclose unless there was a good reason not to. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the bent was shifted to require a good reason to disclose. The new Homeland Security Act limits FOIA access even further.
Dalglish is alarmed at the changes. "I'm afraid there's going to have to be some really egregious behavior before Congress is going to catch on."
That's something Clarence Moriwaki, Mary Woodward and I are worried about, too.
Citizens need to be able to look under the skirts of their government, not the other way around.