The usual suspects

January 11, 1991

As the U.S. moves closer to war with Iraq, federal authorities have stepped up surveillance of Iraqi and other Arab nationals in the United States, prompting fears of a repeat of the injustices LTC done to Japanese-Americans during World War II, when thousands of innocent citizens on the West Coast were interned as security threats.

This week the Federal Bureau of Investigation began seeking "interviews" with more than 200 Arab-American business and community leaders in an attempt to gather "information" about possible terrorist activity in the U.S. if war breaks out in the gulf, according to recent news reports.

The agency strongly denies any intent to intimidate. But Arab-American and civil rights groups rightly question the policy's not-so-subtle implication that anyone of Arab descent is a potential terrorist. A federal action that, in effect, paints all the members of a designated ethnic group as a suspect class can only encourage the kind of jingoist attitudes that, if war did break out, could easily lead to violent attacks on innocent people simply because of the way they look, dress or talk.

That is exactly what the agency says it wishes to avoid by "keeping an open channel of communication" with Arab-American leaders. But there's a line between legitimate precautions and a presumption of guilt, and in this case it's not at all clear the agency hasn't already stepped over it.

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