Pluralism and the War on Terror

Pluralism and the War on Terror

In the last one hundred years, war-induced worries about unity and loyalty have led to fears of foreigners in our midst and campaigns to restrict their rights and opportunities. This has been especially true at times, such as the 1910s and 1940s, during the two world wars, when immigrants and their children have constituted a large percentage of the American population. Levels of cultural pluralism that were accepted in peacetime became intolerable once the United States entered World War I, and in both wars, particular groups-German Americans and Japanese Americans especially-suffered severe repression. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, so did eastern and southern European immigrants, who were accused of anarchism and communism.
Given this history, it seems appropriate to ask how the “War on Terror” that the United States has been fighting since September 11, 2001, is affecting the American experiment with diversity and pluralism. This war, like the two world wars, is being waged at a time when the presence of immigrants and their children in the general population is high; when one group in particular, defined either as Arab Americans or as Muslim Americans, is tied by nationality, ethnicity, or religion to our foes; and when worries about internal security have intensified nationalism and suspicions of cultural and religious difference. Given these circumstances, this war can be construed as a test of the multicultural society that many Americans have labored to create, a society that values diversity and treats as fundamentally equal groups that are culturally, racially, and religiously different from the majority.

I want to examine how we are faring in this test by putting current developments in the context of how America performed in similar situations in World War I and World War II. I first ask how the experience of Arab and Muslim Americans since 9/11 has been similar to and different from that of Japanese Americans in World War II, German Americans in World War I, and southern and eastern Europeans after World War I. I then ask, more generally, what effect the War on Terror is having on multiculturalist beliefs and practices in the United States.

Some may think that the comparison of the War on Terror with the two world wars is unfair. The current war has not required anything resembling the mobilization of economic resources, war matériel, and military personnel necessitated by the world wars. Yet the sense of vulnerability that we feel, as a result of the success of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, is great. Certainly, the Bush administration understands itself to be engaged in an all-out war, not a limited one. Only during the world wars and the tensest moments of the cold war did our government arrogate to itself the kind of powers to suspend civil liberties that it has now taken through the Patriot Act and related measures. Thus, it seems appropriate to ask whether the intol...


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