The Discourse Surrounding Internment of United States Citizens: Action Derived From Fear as a Departure from Liberal Democracy

As the world enters its second decade of the new century, crises across the globe are driving people to take refuge from their home countries. Old fears concerning terrorism, as well as current realities about violence and prejudice pose a significant problem for United States politicians: should refugee programs for Muslims be banned on the basis of national security, just as World War II fears produced Japanese internment camps? This paper will not explore the moral justification—or lack thereof—for the implementation of Japanese internment camps during WWII, or for the banning of Muslim refugees. Instead, it will discuss how the decisions of World War II, and the revival of new discussions of ethnically biased policies, contradict liberal democratic political theory in the United States. Liberal democratic theory is at the core of the United States’ political doctrine; it drives the Constitution, the structure, and the ideology of both the government and the people. The contradiction of these values and ideologies is not only a troubling departure from foundational liberal democratic principles, but potentially signal a decline in the political stability of the nation itself as the American people sink more deeply into polarized positions and increasingly neglect objective evaluation of political candidates from either major party.

In the U.S., there exists a divide between the intentions of politicians for the societies they wish to create and lead, and the reality of the political and social atmospheres garnered by the more diverse American peoples. These differences reflect the further, profound difference between the United States’ liberal democratic foundations, and the reality of its lack of democratic representation. Liberal democracy is defined here as a political theory founded on representative democracy, where the government is formed of elected representatives whose power is restrained by both the law and the constitution, both of which serve to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals and are supported by the majority of the state. Of course, the United States is not a perfect liberal democracy. The theoretical justifications for the values and legal attitudes of the nation that can be—and are—threatened by the proposed decisions of the few who hold power.

The Syrian refugee crisis has given way to rhetoric by some United States politicians that is both anti-refugee and, more generally, anti-Islamic. In recent years, conflict has arisen in Syria, The civil war began in spring 2011 when pro-democracy protests erupted across the nation in opposition to the authoritarian regime ofPresident Bashar al-Assad; the President used violent, militaristic methods to suppress opposition efforts, including murder. Since then, conflict has raged between the government and opposition militias, as well as the rise of a third antagonist, ISIS, a radical non-state terrorist actor in the region. All of these threats have culminated in the displacement of Syrian civilians, who have now gained refugee status as they flee their civil war-torn country. The potential for the reinstitution of internment camps for those peacefully seeking refuge in America based on race and religion both represents the state’s increasing political polarization and its departure from the values of liberal democracy that upon which the United States was founded. The complexity of the situation is most apparent when the security argument is considered: does the nation prioritize perceptions of security, or philosophical foundations rooted in the Constitution, during times of crisis? This question might seem rhetorical and self-evident to people on either side of the argument; the ideological conflict at hand here is best exemplified by the U.S. policy decisions made during World War II concerning Japanese-American citizens.

The U.S. first interned civilians during WWII following the Japanese attach on Pearl Harbor, a measure intended to improve security, but which did little else beyond dividing otherwise equal citizens and violating the fundamental theories of liberty and freedom otherwise promoted by the concepts of democracy. In a 1942 film produced by the US Office of War Information, Japanese Relocation, Milton Eisenhower’s narration sets the tone for the official opinion on U.S. action. Eisenhower’s explanation of the motivations for the internment, could easily translate into today’s anti-Muslim immigration discourses by substituting a few key words. The original states:

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry; two thirds of them American citizens; one third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move.

The legal basis for the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike derives from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which came two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war against. Executive Order 9066 was declared after the United States had formally declared war and was motivated by determined necessity founded on fear of future attacks and national insecurity. The trouble was, legal basis had been developed around racial motivations in order to support it; legal foundations in the Constitution did not support the xenophobic ideas on security being purported at the time, and so those in power created the necessary legal foundation through Supreme Court decisions such as Hirabayashi v. United States, executive orders, and influential media coverage of the conflict.

Ansel Adams, a photographer of the period who was critical of the executive order, noted that by June 1943, the Office of War Information reported that Nazi agents, not Japanese Americans, aided the Japanese in carrying out their attack on Pearl Harbor. The rhetoric of security perpetuated at this time was proven wrong. In this case, fear determined the guilt of Japanese Americans before the facts had been appropriately investigated and considered; and, thus, a narrative of the danger that Japanese Americans posed took hold of public perception and ended up oppressing innocent civilians. This fear-based/security-obsessed narrative ultimately led to the forced internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in the Pacific Coastal region, most of whom lost their jobs, possessions, and land, all with little guarantee of their full or partial return following the conclusion of internment.

Today, U.S. political discourse encounters the same methods of abusing the public’s insecurities in order to advance and justify extreme and xenophobic notions of how the country should be governed. Following recent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California and Paris, France—both connected with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—2016 Presidential candidate Donald Trump advocated a ban on allowing identified Muslims into the United States. Understanding the motivation behind the urge to stop the refugee program is vital to understanding its significance to the theoretical underpinnings of U.S. politics. David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke Virginia, issued an early statement advocating the refusal of Syrian refugees to his region of the state:

I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

The real and serious threat that Bowers is referring to, however, is unfounded in the wake of the Parisian attacks considering that the perpetrators were European radicals, not moderate Syrians or Muslims. As Adams noted during his work covering the Japanese internment camps, fear of Japanese American spies would fail to become tangible. In a similar way, security concerns regarding Syrian and Muslim immigrants to the U.S. fail because of the tenuous link between extremist ideology and everyday civilians; not all Muslims or Syrian refugees are dangerous, and so to criminalize all members of one demographic is disproportionately xenophobic. Consider the writings of a theorist behind liberal democratic theory, John Locke. In Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, he argued that churches should have no coercive power over their members, and that there could be no true religion for a state; he wrote of the separation of legislative and executive powers, and furthermore that a government could not exist without the consent of its people to protect and govern it. Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau shared similar notions concerning the relationship between government and people, in fact.

The executive order authorizing the internment camps came at a time of inter-state war that inspired high levels of fear and national insecurity for the state of democracy; Trump’s remarks and the attempted policies of both governors and mayors represent a resurgence of fear-based political discourse based on a fear of refugees and the threats more directly faced by those abroad. There is a sense of irony in that the United States has nearly always proclaimed itself a land without religious oppression. Puritans came from England with motive to practice their religion in peace, and the first amendment of the Constitution forbids the impediment of the freedom of religion.

Although school systems teach the values of the U.S. Constitution—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, civil rights such as voting and desegregation amongst races—the impression that many may have of the active applicability of these rights may be misaligned with the desired reality of those vying for power. The possibility arises that these protections once deemed inalienable may only be selectively extended. Of the Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have recommended that the Syrian refugee program be continued, but that the program should only accept Christian refugees. While no politicians have formally recommended the internment of Muslim-American citizens or of Syrian refugees, their discrimination in terms of their immigration policies sends a concerning message to the U.S. While the United States government may not directly endanger them yet, political discourses based on fear sets a dangerous precedent for policies that may come further down the road.

Embracing a rhetoric that threatens to divide the American people from the values their country was founded on compromises the political stability of the United States as a whole, as ethnically-motivated policies may lead to political polarization, However, the danger comes from public opinion itself, which has become so divided that only 39% of Americans share a somewhat equal number of liberal and conservative positions. As it currently stands, the two-party system in the U.S. grows increasingly polarized, supported by politicians and citizens alike—the fundamental lack of civil discussion on the political spectrum itself can produce the level of instability suggested thus far. And indeed, if fears of xenophobia are once again able to fuel adaptations of the law to the demands of a few in power, democratic instability would not be a possibility, but perhaps an inevitability. The banning of refugees based on religion and ethnicity threatens the security of American citizens who practice Islam and enables U.S. citizens to incorrectly identify non-Christians as un-American. It is impossible for a nation to correctly proclaim itself a sanctuary of liberal democracy if it fails to offer equal status and liberal democratic rights to all its citizens, regardless of their identities. Banning Muslim and Syrian refugees may intend to proffer security by blocking terrorists, but its main accomplishment will be the endangerment of entire segments of the U.S. population, as radicalized fears seem legitimate in contemporary political discourse. If the United States is no longer loyal to its foundational principles as a liberal democracy, the nation may plunge itself into internal political turmoil as people clash over the future of the United States, and whom it truly serves.

Laura Thompson is a student in the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of International Service. She can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

About Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson is a political theory staff writer for The World Mind. She is pursuing a BA in literature with a double minor in history and international studies. | Her focuses and primary studies include 18th & 19th century literature, human rights as it relates to genocide, and the study of the rise of alternative right politics historically. | Contact her at: