Carnegie Mellon University

Fearing the Enemy Within

May 06, 2020

Fearing the Enemy Within

By Hari Seldon

Even though America prides itself on an individualistic, laissez-faire “none of your business” philosophy, when faced with grave international challenges, it has always succumbed to a hive mindset, allowing too much encroachment into civil liberties.

The examples of such encroachment litter American history, particularly modern history when foreign powers began posing existential threats: Japanese internment camps during World War II, the Red Scare during the Cold War, detentions of over a thousand Muslims, and the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11.

No individual could stop these repudiations of America’s professed ideals and the public chose not to. As noted in CNN’s “Cold War” documentary, not even the most liberal judge in America dared stand up for those branded communists while the Supreme Court refused to help interned Japanese-Americans.

A key ingredient is required for the suspension of civil liberties: a fear that the enemy is hiding within our borders. If we are not afraid that sympathizers of the opposition reside in frightful numbers or in powerful positions within America, there is no need to sacrifice our freedoms for safety. When this fear exists, Americans are all too willing to shed their ideals.

Consider World War I: German immigrant Robert Prager was lynched, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s concert-master was interned, and President Woodrow Wilson, after earlier welcoming immigrants, exacerbated tensions, saying a hyphenated American (for example, German-American) “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.”

Japanese-Americans were considered threats during World War II and so interned. Next, the threats were communists and post 9/11, Muslims. In all these situations, the enemy was identifiable by ethnicity or philosophy and those supposedly fitting the bill were harassed domestically.

Critics of this thesis will claim that I have cherry-picked instances. Where were the domestic violations of civil liberty during the Spanish-American War or the Vietnam War? These, and other such wars, were missing both ingredients: they neither seriously threatened American security nor was there a group within the nation to target, there being few Filipinos or Vietnamese in America during these wars. The conflicts generating a loss of freedoms were defensive whereas imperialism hardly generates the anxiety required for a concession of liberties.

The other international conflicts critics could cite are the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In the first, we were fighting the British and those of British descent were never going to lose their rights in a nation founded by Britain. And while the Civil War posed a severe threat to the Union, it was a fight between Americans, leaving no group for target.

One might compare America to its enemies, like the Soviet Union, and claim that America is better. But the US holds itself to a higher standard, one it has only met in peacetime. America has consistently fallen far short of its egalitarian ideals, becoming ever quicker to distrust domestic groups when faced with a serious international threat and an easy scapegoat.