Thesis: Civil Liberties in Wartime

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Civil Liberties During War

Losses on the Home Front in American History

We -- we Americans, that is -- like to think of ourselves as decent people. People who respect the rights of others. People who believe that what we are fighting for when we go to war is to protect democracy and the civil liberties of all of the people of our great and worthy nation.

And yet.

And yet when we go to war terrible things often happen at home. Not the grief of families who have learned that one of their loved ones has been killed. (Although of course this is common.) Not the privations of a country at war. (Although this too happens, although not during the current one.) But what is most terrible is the suspension of basic rights, the abrogation of essential liberties, the destruction of the social contract that should exist among all Americans and between all Americans and our government. Abraham Lincoln broke the rules of the Republic that he swore that he was trying to save. Franklin Roosevelt helped to save the war, but ordered Japanese-Americans to be relocated. George W. Bush talked of being compassionate and a Christian, but agreed with seeming glee to the warrant-less wiretapping of Americans and the torture of prisoners of war.

In the paper I examine the ways in which American civil liberties have been consistently abridged during wartime and what the fact that these violations occur with such frequency says about the nature of our democracy. And of democracy in general, for the United States is hardly alone in having one set of rules for peace and another for war. Perhaps this should not surprise us, for while war brings out the best in some people, it brings out the worse in others. At home as well as on the battlefield.

Civil Liberties and Uncivil Times

War pits our strongest, basest needs for land, or power, or privilege, against the weak and fragile framework of law. The rule of law is like an ecosystem -- internally unbreakable, but unbelievably delicate and easily upset by any outside force. The first casualty of war is no soldier, nor even our collective sanity, as some have said, but obedience to the law. Specifically the government's obedience to the laws that concern those rights the government has so sincerely promised to each one of us as citizens and residents. This essay seeks to explicate what happens to the rule law during wartime, and more particularly to examine the ways in which civil liberties (that we so often take for granted during peacetime) fall like bodies pierced by bullets during a sneak dawn attack.

A good example of what tends to happen with civil liberties during wartime -- and to whom it happens -- is theJapanese internment camps of World War II. Wartime brings out the best and the worst in humanity -- soldiers become heroes or rapists, generals are revealed as brilliant leaders or tyrants. And the people making laws and waiting at home are as prone to excess as those in the trenches (though with considerably less excuse). I will expand on this subject later, looking at more of the legal and political details of what happened to Japanese-Americans. But I would like to describe here briefly what happened to the Japanese as a way of providing a model for what has been the norm in the United States during war.

In 1942, the United States government began a process of involuntary internment of Japanese and Japanese-descended individuals. This terrible policy affected 125,000 individuals, and was not entirely rescinded until 1945. During that time, Japanese residents in the United States and Japanese-Americans citizens were forcibly removed from their homes, had their materials possessions confiscated, and were subjected to inhumane conditions in internment camps.

The living conditions in the concentration camps were often unsanitary, with families living in hastily constructed barracks near open sewers. Toilets were shared by everyone in the camp and had little or no privacy. Meals provided to the Japanese were meager and caused a great deal of malnourishment. Despite these poor conditions, programs were eventually put into place that improved the condition of the camps and allowed the prisoners to work for small wages.

The broad streak of tragedy in this story is what has persisted in the minds of Americans -- the pictures of hopeless, thin children, of empty-eyed old men, of young women with fear writ starkly in every line of their bodies -- but the legal and political implications of the camps is even more disturbing because the deportation of Japanese-Americans (along with the range of other abridgments of civil liberties that have occurred during wartime across the breadth of American history during wartime) violate the basic democratic structure and culture of our nation in two distinct ways.

Two different types of liberties were stolen from the Japanese-Americans during World War II (and since we are all connected to each other in a democracy, the rest of the country was damaged too, albeit in more indirect and less immediately pernicious ways). The liberties guaranteed to all citizens (and to a lesser extent to all residents of the country) by both the Constitution and the Enlightenment humanistic moral code upon which our nation is based were tossed out the window during that cold February of 1942. They gave way in the face of fear and racism.

It is commonly assumed that the laws of the United States emanate from the Constitution -- and this is indeed an explicit part of our culture. A large part of what Americans -- or at least those Americans who are cognizant of our political history -- consider to be our heritage and mutual culture is based upon the idea and the reality of the Constitution. In a nation as diverse as ours, with its wave upon wave of immigrants, the Constitution binds us all together, reminding us that although we have come from different places, once we arrive in this country we have a common legal, political, and social destination. And it is true that some laws are a natural extension of the framework set forth so long ago.

But the Constitution simply codified a deeper sense of law (and order) and liberty. The Constitution is an intermediary form between the vast collection of local and state and federal laws and the basis and instigation for all law -- in all cultures. The basis for all law is a combination of the fear and the collective moral code of a people. Our laws are expressions of our culture's standards, ideals, and nightmares.

We tend to believe that our laws are anchored in -- and grow organically from -- the Constitution. And we tend to want to believe that our laws do not arise from (or take nourishment from) such basic human desires as our inclination to distrust and even punish those are different -- and therefore threatening. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States: It is a human-wide condition. The purposes of law are twofold: To prevent anarchy, and to impose cultural standards. The causes are twofold as well: Law springs from both fear and morality. Therefore the answer to the question, "What happens to civil liberties during wartime?" lies in another question: How does war affect the fear and ethical code of a people?

Effects of War on the Human Condition

Broadly speaking, war has three major effects on a people. It increases the level of fear. It makes us even more inclined to be binary thinkers who see the world in terms of "us" and "them." And it turns us into dehumanized beasts and moralizing prigs. Given that these general trends occur across time and place, it seems likely that they are a part of our biological heritage as humans. Indeed, there are sound evolutionary arguments to be made about the usefulness of racism and xenophobia, as is outlined in the following description of how segregation between different groups probably had a high survival value in the early millennia of human development.

Mark Pagel of Reading University and Ruth Mace of University College London believe this aversion to strangers was more than simply protecting territory but a way of ensuring the greatest degree of altruistic co-operation within a social group. Such behaviour could explain why humans are so culturally diverse, because shunning outsiders would lead to the evolution of different languages and traditions which tend to reinforce differences between tribes and ethnic groups.

If our human tendency to distrust those who are not like us arises from a general fear of outsiders' motivations and actions it seems all too likely that racism and xenophobia will increase during war. And this will occur even to the extent that people will be willing to overlook the violation of basic civil rights and the foundations of law. Americans are generally (I believe) inclined to value the law and to look to ways to uphold it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Civil Liberties in Wartime."  Essaytown.com.  December 9, 2009.  Accessed December 7, 2019.
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