Virtual internment

By Jan Adams
Mar 20, 2011

Veena Dubal (left) and Julia Harumi Mass are civil liberties lawyers (with the Asian Law Caucus and the ACLU of Northern California respectively) who assist individuals who experience themeselves as violated by our government. These days, these people are usually Muslims, or persons of Arab or Middle Eastern or South Asians origin -- or people who appear to someone with authority to belong to one of those categories. Ten years after 9/11 and the replacement of George W. with a constitutional lawyer, FBI surveillance of communities and widespread harassment of perceived "dangerous" people at airports and borders continues and may be increasing. About 20 people attended a workshop yesterday at the ACLU-NC annual conference in Sacramento to share stories and concerns. Some points that came out during the workshop:

  • FBI agents are commonly and aggressively questioning Muslims in homes and workplaces and infiltrating Muslim places of worship. They have been known to ask people such questions as "who is particularly religious here?" -- implicitly equating religiosity with terrorist sympathies.
  • As has been true so often in US history, much of the fear and hatred US Muslims encounter arises from widespread unfamiliarity with their faith and customs. An interesting new internet project creates a space for non-Muslims to tell stories that break through this incomprehension: check out My Best Friend is Muslim. Can such a site -- one that uses the same tactics for lowering anxieties that "coming out" has for LGBT folks -- serve to demystify members of the world's second largest religion? I suspect yes, especially among a younger generation with more exposure to an increasingly diverse population.
  • A rift has opened in the experiences of members of the target groups after 9/11. Ms. Dubal described herself as going along, confidently thinking of herself as a member of an advancing "model minority," when the shock suddenly dropped her into the category of a suspicious person. A young man from Orange County reminded us that he was in middle school when the terrorist attack happened; he's grown up being bullied and accused. This is not to say there is no threat to older people in the target groups; only two weeks ago, two elderly turbaned Sikh gentlemen were shot in Sacramento while on their afternoon walk. Law enforcement is looking into this as a hate crime.
  • In Northern California, at least among people conscious about civil liberties, US internment of loyal Japanese citizens during World War II is not a forgotten tale of panicked popular hysteria. Ms. Mass mentioned that her mother had been interned in a camp in Wyoming. Ms. Dubal reported that something clicked for her when one of her clients described life in the post 9/11 US as a "virtual internment." In the Muslim and other target communities, people fear they can't Google certain subjects, don't dare to even discuss US foreign policy, even fear what they should allow themselves to think about. There's an ever present fear that an unguarded mental musing might trigger investigation and harassment.

Ten years on from 9/11, it is time for our big, powerful country to get a grip. This isn't rational vigilance; it is unreasoning fear that sometimes shades over into hate and even violence.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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