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VI. Conclusion: Post-9.11 America, A New Age of Concentration Camps?

The repeal of Title II did not completely cease the incarceration or surveillance of aliens, nor of American citizens. Two years before the Department of Justice announced its support to repeal Title II, the Nixon administration rearranged the internal security institutions to reinforce domestic surveillance capability. In 1967, Attorney General Ramsey Clark established the Interdivision Information Unit within the Department of Justice to monitor protest groups throughout the United States. The unit collected information on campus and community protest activities throughout the country, generating detailed weekly reports from the FBI. Since the mid-1950s, the FBI has expanded its activities from purely investigatory operations to more aggressive counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) to disrupt and neutralize any activities that the Bureau considered possible threats to internal security. Even after the radical social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s subsided, criminalization of young black men continued. Indeed, the age of concentration camps was followed by the development of what Angela Davis calls the “prison industrial complex.”

Today, we might be facing another age of concentration camps. Forty-five days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government passed the first USA PATRIOT ACT, which granted the government sweeping powers to conduct surveillance, wiretaps, and secret searches on people, as well as authorizing indefinite detention all in the name of fighting the “war on terrorism.” The newly-created Department of Homeland Security strengthened the government's power to control immigration and national borders, resulting in the detention and deportation of an unknown but substantial number of immigrants. Furthermore, military detention facilities hold some American citizens, and at the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, civilians captured from foreign countries are incarcerated. The government claims that those who are held are “enemy combatants.” Court cases are proceeding to determine whether the government has the authority to indefinitely detain citizens and aliens by merely designating them as “enemy combatants.”

The term “enemy combatant” originated in Ex Parte Quirin. The case involved the habeas corpus petitions of German and American citizens who received military training in Germany and landed on American soil from German submarines carrying explosives. The Supreme Court ruled that the petitioners could be categorized as unlawful belligerents, or “an enemy combatant who without uniform comes secretly through the lines for the purpose of waging war by destruction of life or property” and as such they were “offenders against the law of war subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals.” This is important because the Court opined that even civilians with American citizenship could be tried and punished in military tribunals if they were found to be “enemy combatants.” However, the evidence in this case left no doubt that the petitioners were engaged in the military operations of an enemy state. In contrast, in contemporary “enemy combatant” cases the government has refused to present indubitable evidence that detainees were actually “enemy combatants.”

The term “enemy combatant” is an ambiguous term that gives the government virtually blanket power to arrest and detain anybody in its discretion. While the label “enemy alien” presumes citizenship of an enemy state, “enemy combatant” could be applied to both citizens and aliens. Although most of the people who have been detained since September 11 under the war on terrorism are aliens, the government has tried to retain the power to detain any citizens it considers as threats to national security.

It is telling that the terms “enemy aliens” and “enemy combatants,” used during World War II to allow the internment of Japanese Americans, have been revived in the war on terrorism. It is an interesting academic question to consider which term is more restrictive than the other. From the Japanese American point of view, “enemy combatant” may be fairer, allowing the executive branch stronger control in dealing with domestic espionage or sabotage on the basis of individual behavior rather than a group affiliation such as ancestry. On the other hand, “enemy combatant” is a highly problematic term because the federal government's policy of secrecy in terms of revealing how and why particular citizens or aliens are designated as “enemy combatants” leaves it unaccountable. In reality, the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants are conducted less as a result of investigations on individual behavior than racial profiling. The ambiguity of these terms demonstrates the government's power to detain people around the discursive national border by manipulating the murky boundaries between “citizens” and “aliens.”

The internment of Japanese Americans, the McCarthyite prosecution of so-called communists, and anxiety about the USA PATRIOT ACT, are all well known and significant in and of themselves. However, when we see the connections between these separate incidents, we start to notice how American borders of citizenship are manipulated through legal and extra-legal violence. The genealogy of the Emergency Detention Act demonstrates that exclusion and incarceration based on one category of citizenship can transform into another. In 1942, the government allowed the detention of American citizens in concentration camps by branding Japanese American Nisei as “enemy non-aliens” and placing them outside the discursive national boundary on the basis of race. The Court, in order to uphold the government's wartime policy, applied the discourse of loyalty, instead of race, to justify the separate treatment of Japanese Americans from other American citizens. Ironically, this rhetorical manipulation opened an avenue for the government to use disloyalty as a legitimate reason to incarcerate any citizen in detention camps during the Cold War period. The passage of the Emergency Detention Act confirmed this Executive power.

The making and unmaking of the Emergency Detention Act, particularly in relation to Japanese American internment, illustrate that assuming a clear line between citizens and aliens is not necessarily helpful in assessing whether or not restricting the civil liberties of an individual or group is justifiable. Japanese American internment was unjust not only because the majority of the internees were U.S. citizens. It was unjust not only because most--some might say all--Japanese Americans were loyal. It is the very fluidity of these terms--citizenship and loyalty--that gives the government or the dominant segment in society the power to draw a line and determine whose constitutional rights should be respected while others would be excluded from such protection. Without an insight about the performative function of these fluid terms that mark the discursive national borderlands, we would only be able to see in hindsight the injustice that happened to one group or another, but fail to recognize the exclusion, incarceration and detention happening to “other” people now, even as we speak about the history of American concentration camps.


Associate Professor, Institute for Language and Culture, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan.


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