The symptoms are unmistakable. Across America in December, throngs of male foreigners frantically swamped federal offices, where they were grilled, fingerprinted, and digitally photographed. Those aliens whose work or student permits were somehow deemed wanting were liable to be handcuffed and herded like felons into lockups. This was the result of a hastily prepared, ill-publicized order signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who initially ordered the fingerprinting of all alien males 16 or older who were native to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Sudan. Responding to a justifiable outcry over this selective list, the Justice Department expanded the order to include 12 other Islamic countries, plus North Korea, but revealingly continued to omit Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Faced with further protests, the Justice Department then added both countries and (inexplicably) Armenia- only to provoke a roar of mystified anger from politically influential Armenian Americans. Armenia was dropped from the list.
Thus did the United States slouch down a familiar path, marked Xenophobe Alley, whose ultimate destination is likely to be Remorse Avenue and possibly Reparations Square. Granted, Washington does contend with a serious security problem in locating Osama bin Laden's sleeper cells, or any other terror gang. Granted as well that U.S. colleges and universities have been careless monitors of foreigners bearing student visas who fail actually to enroll--almost as careless prior to 9/11, one hastens to add, as the FBI, the CIA, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Attorney General Ashcrofr's response is like that of a zealous citizen who sets off false alarms throughout the city to arouse people to the danger of fire.
Like certain strains of influenza, or like insatiable locusts that hibernate for 14 years, xenophobia seems to recur in cycles. The first outbreak in the young American public was directed at suspected Jacobins, and gave birth to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Then came the harassment of the Popish Irish, before and after the Great Famine of 1846-47, an antiforeign movement that found its lasting symbol in the Know-Nothing Party. After the Civil War, there was the Yellow Peril, fanned by the yellow press, that led to the enactment in 1882 of the Chinese exclusion law. But the true precursors of the present campaign were the Red Scare of 1919-20 and the drive in the 1930s to close the gates to Jews and others fleeing Nazi Germany.
I have in my library a little blue book, The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-Twenty, by Louis Post, who was assistant...