President George Bush's sweeping order to screen thousands of Middle Easterners suspected of espionage and other crimes is not the first time this country has been gripped by anti-alien fever.
(The Nisei who were interned during World War 11 were different. These were largely American-born or naturalized citizens who remained in this country.)
A closer parallel to this year's post-September 11 events occurred in 1798 during the administration of our second president, John Adams.
Freedom-seeking immigrants had flocked to these shores from the repressive French regime after the French Revolution, together with blacks and whites from the Caribbean, some of them indentured servants. While the young nation received reports of flagrant French piracy on the high seas, French schools, French restaurants and boardinghouses teemed with foreigners speaking a foreign language, together with refugees fleeing the Irish Rebellion.
And an insecure president who had been chosen by only three electoral votes over Thomas Jefferson (echoing last year's election) mirrored the insecurity of the young nation teetering on the edge of a war with its recent ally in the Revolutionary War. Striving to guard against perceived internal threats as well as to quell the strident editors who accused President Adams of both internal repression and external acts that could provoke war with France, the Adams administration enacted the Alien, Naturalization, and Sedition Acts.
Echoing the USA-Patriot Act, the Alien Act authorized the president to deport aliens deemed dangerous or suspected of "treasonable or secret" inclinations. The Naturalization Act extended the period of residence required before naturalization to 14 years, almost tripling the requirement set only three years before.
The Sedition Act, aimed primarily at reckless and caustic editors, made it criminal to publish "any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the Congress, or the President or any attempt to excite against them... the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition." Notwithstanding the First Amendment to the Constitution that John Adams had recently championed, a number of partisan and critical editors, mostly from the Northeast, were fined and/or jailed for criticizing the president or the Congress.
The secret military courts ordered by George W. Bush have in common with the Alien Act of 203 years ago that both are based on extraordinary and exigent perceptions of threats to national security; both are aimed at foreigners, and both challenge, if not undermine, sections of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing due process of law. Under his wartime powers as Commander in Chief, President Bush has ordered secret investigations of Middle East men; authorized military courts to be held in secret, and sharply narrowed the attorney-client privilege of confidentiality.
In the early days of the Republic, when candidates for high office ran independently of one another, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic-Republican Party, not only opposed the Alien, Naturalization, and Sedition Acts, he denounced them as "the reign of witches." After he defeated Adams for the presidency, he pardoned all those convicted.
Eventually the tumult both at home and abroad moderated, and war with France was averted during Adams' term. And 203 years ago there were no horrific events that remotely compared with the horrific World Trade Center and Pentagon events, which sparked the war on terrorism and changed the American world and domestic landscape.
But in Adams' day there was truth-in-labeling. Repression wasn't spun the way the USA-Patriot Bill has been. By creating the secret courts under his wartime powers, President Bush was spared having to sign and identify himself with legislation authorizing the secret military courts that will try dark-complexioned aliens who look like Arabs.
Nevertheless, a secret nationwide screening of possibly thousands of Middle Easterners is currently underway, and the secret military courts are, as the Alien and Sedition trials were during Adams' day, drawing intense media scrutiny. Recently those military courts were derided as "kangaroo courts" in the press.
And such events are bound to be compared to the Alien, Naturalization and Sedition Acts, which, as much as anything, defeated the re-election bid of that doughty patriot, John Adams, who had spent his life as a revolutionary activist, as Continental Congress delegate, champion of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador to several European nations, and as vice president and president during some of the most perilous and tumultuous days of the young republic.
A journalist for over 50 years, Mitchell Kaidy of Rochester has worked for three daily newspapers, radio, and television, and won a Project Censored Award in 1993.