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Civil Rights and Security

Four months ago, racist threats were spray painted on the Mediterranean Restaurant and Grocery Store in St. Cloud. The same day, a store owned by an Ethiopian immigrant was defaced. The previous month, a Somali mosque and community center in St. Cloud was vandalized.

These are examples close to home of the verbal harassment, vandalism and assault that people of Muslim and Middle Eastern descent are experiencing. Since September 2001, hate crimes against Arab Americans have risen sharply nationwide. One assumption equates being Arab American or Muslim with supporting terrorism.

There are other times in our history when entire groups of people were targeted and when civil rights were violated in the name of national security.

When the U.S. entered World War I, for example, the Minnesota Legislature created the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, which ran from 1917-1920.

The commission was given broad powers to promote homeland defense. It hounded people that it alleged were subversive or anti-American. Minnesotans were asked to watch each other and to report suspicious behavior. Non-citizens were required to register with the state.

Minnesota's German Americans, the state's largest immigrant group, were especially targeted. Their loyalty was questioned by fellow citizens and many were accused of being spies. People were fired from jobs or charged with crimes simply because they were German. The children of German immigrants were harassed by classmates. Some Minnesotans hid their German heritage by Anglicizing their names (for example, Schmidt to Smith). Churches and businesses removed German words from their titles. Many immigrant churches stopped holding services in German.

During World War II, Japanese Americans became victims. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans - most U.S. citizens and over half children -- were arrested nationwide. Without charges or trials, they were imprisoned in ten concentration camps, some for up to four years. When they were finally released at the end of the war, many Japanese Americans found their lives shattered, their homes and farms taken. Many were treated with suspicion for decades after the war.

Over 40 years later, in 1988, Congress apologized for the "grave injustice that was done" to Japanese Americans. According to the official commission, the action was not justified, but caused by "racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

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