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Published Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

S.F. exhibit illustrates wartime threats to civil liberties

Mercury News Staff Columnist

For those who have been paying attention, President Bush is poised to sign legislation that gives police broad powers to investigate suspected terrorists and hold non-citizens indefinitely.

In which case you might want to pay a visit to 1684 Post St. in San Francisco. There's a little exhibit whose subject matter is nearly 60 years old but has stunning relevance to these times. There are, for example, some 700 people being detained as part of the Sept. 11 attacks.

``The Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War II'' opened at the National Japanese American Historical Society just 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. It is a collaboration among Americans of Japanese, Italian and German descent detailing how America reacted when Pearl Harbor was bombed, an event so shocking and brutal that we went to extraordinary lengths in usurping people's civil rights.

The parallels bear watching. People were picked up and detained. Calls were made for tightening civil liberties.

In 1942, our government argued it should allow search warrants of a house simply because an ``enemy'' alien lived there, said Larry DiStasi, who just completed a book, ``Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II'' (Heyday Books, 2001). In 2001, our government has pushed through lower standards for wiretapping, if the information is argued to be relevant to an investigation.

``What's interesting to me now is how reasonable it always sounds,'' said DiStasi, who contributed to the exhibit. ``In the face of a threat -- in this case a mysterious threat -- the justification always sounds reasonable.''

But the devil is in the execution. People get hurt. And the effects last a lifetime.

No, this column isn't going to be about the egregious internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in this country.

But I will talk about Title 50 of the U.S. Code, which allowed the detention of 30,000 people -- Japanese, Italian, German, and other Europeans -- in the days and weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. If you visit the exhibit, you'll see how some 600,000 Italians across the country were forced to register as enemy aliens and carry photo ID booklets. And that some 10,000 Europeans, such as Italian fishermen at Monterey Bay, were made to move from coastal areas inland or had their boats confiscated and thus lost their livelihoods, like Joe DiMaggio's father. And how some 10,000 German-Americans were detained in internment camps for years.

It is the Alien Enemy Act, Title 50, Chapter 3, Sect. 21. And it's on the books today.

``Whenever there is a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion is perpetrated, attempted or threatened against the territory of the United States by any foreign nation or government, and the President makes public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being of the age 14 years and upward, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed as alien enemies . . .''

Think your government wouldn't do a thing like that?

Several Bay Area residents can tell you firsthand what it meant when the government could hold you in detention indefinitely.

Lothar Eiserloh of San Francisco and Ingrid Eiserloh Shofner of Richmond were 6 and 11 when their father, Mathias, was picked up by the FBI from their Ohio home and taken to a Crystal City, Texas, detention camp. The entire family ended up at the camp. Four years later, in the middle of the war, even the children, who were American citizens, ended up getting sent to Germany as a prisoner exchange. They always suspected that neighbors had reported them as suspicious because they were German.

``How do you balance concerns of national security and civil liberties?'' asked John Christgau, a Belmont author who was one of the first to write about the internment of individuals under Title 50 with his book ``Enemies.''

With some vigilance. Like now: Many groups, ranging from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union, actively lobbied -- with not much success -- for changes on the bill that Bush will sign.

``I don't quarrel with people who have to make wartime decisions,'' said DiStasi. ``But it's important for people to get together to unite in a voice and make sure this is done in the open and everyone understands that is what is happening.''

Because it's all too clear that abuses can happen again.

L.A. Chung appears Tuesdays and Saturdays and wants you to share your stories with her. Contact her at or (415) 394-6881.