In honor of Thursday's congressional hearing on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," I thought I'd invite a Ghost of Hearings Past for a brief visit to the Faculty Lounge.
The year was 1941. The committee was the House Committee on Un-American Activities, headed by Texas Representative Martin Dies, Jr. The subject was the spread of Fifth Column tendencies in the Japanese American community.
(Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1941)
The situation was dire:
Scary stuff indeed. (Except it turned out that all of the information in this secret Japanese manual was available, in English, in American bookstores across the country, for a dollar.)
But there was more!
(Washington Post, August 1, 1941.)
The confidential report by the Dies Committee investigator continued:
All of this was false. The investigation, designed to ferret out the subversive tendencies of Japanese Americans and Japanese resident aliens, revealed a great deal more about the anxieties and prejudices of the investigators.
But here's the important thing: the Dies Committee's 1941 investigations weren't just historical psychodrama. They contributed to the atmosphere of hysteria that swept the West Coast after the Pearl Harbor attack. Politicians and journalists urging the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the coast in early 1942 pointed to the Dies Committee's "findings" for support. Military officials used the findings to justify their decision to give the politicians what they were clamoring for.
We will surely hear defenses of this Thursday's hearing along the lines that it's an innocent inquiry into a vital national security matter. I don't dispute that we should protect ourselves from domestic terrorists, whatever their faith or ancestry, though I suspect that the FBI is a bit better at this than Representative King's committee. (J. Edgar Hoover's FBI didn't buy any of the Dies Committee's findings, and the FBI was right.)
But these sorts of inquiries have a history of getting things horribly wrong. Their errors don't tend to become visible until long after lots of innocent people have suffered for them.
I can only hope that Congressman King's sleep will be disturbed by the Ghost of Hearings Past. There's still time for a change of heart.