Illegal Arrests During Periods of National Crisis

Amidst the likely avalanche of memorial services, eulogies and patriotic drumbeating of “Never Again” that will come amidst the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, its important not to forget the calls to “round-‘em-up” that came in the wake of that dreadful day.

The sad tales of the innumerable innocent people, mostly Muslim men, detained and still others attacked and even killed in reaction to what happened on 9/11 should not be forgotten in the day’s patriotic reflection.

The popular and governmental overreactions that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11 is just one – and a relatively mild – example of a long history of nationalistic fervor directed at those identified as likely or actual threats during times of national crisis.

In the 20th century, the worst example of this sentiment becoming national policy was the internment of Japanese-Americans as part of the World War II mobilization.   It is the great shame of Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy.

One of the least recalled occurrences of the “round-‘em-up” mentality run wild took place a quarter-century earlier, amidst the nation’s buildup and entry into the Great War.  It permitted local authorities to suspend habeas corpus, effectively denying Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure of unescorted women who were alleged to be “prostitutes.”

The Associated Press’ recent revelations about the collaboration between the CIA and a clandestine unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD) show how a systematic campaign targeting ethnic communities continues a decade after 9/11.  According to the AP, “these operations have benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying.”

The NYPD sent undercover agents, dubbed “rakers,” into minority, mostly Muslim, neighborhoods to monitor daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. It also employed informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor Islamic sermons, even when there’s was no evidence of wrongdoing.  As AP further explains, “Neither the [NY] city council, which finances the department, nor the federal government, which has given NYPD more than $1.6 billion since 9/11, [has] told exactly what’s going on.”

American democracy suffered in 9/11 as a result of al-Qaeda’s actions (combined with the incompetence of federal intelligence apparatus) and U.S. government overreactions.  The global “war on terror” and domestic spying on alleged threats continue, distorting U.S. foreign policy and public life.  The greatest commemoration of 9/11 would be to end U.S. foreign military (mis)adventures and restore freedom in America, particularly ending questionable domestic surveillance practices.

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In the years before U.S. entry into World War I, American Christian conservatives and others embraced the notion of “war discipline” to wage a campaign against what they considered dangerous “vices,” particularly commercial sex and alcohol consumption.  Their first targets were what were then known as “red light districts.”  (The term “red light” is apparently derived from the early days of prostitution in Kansas City when a railroad brakeman posted a red light outside a whorehouse while he was engaged inside.)

These districts were regulated zones of illicit activities, including prostitution, gambling and liquor sales.  They were located throughout the country, but the most notorious ones were New Orleans’s Storyville, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, Denver’s Market Street, Baltimore’s Block, Chicago’s Levee and New York’s Bowery, Five Points and Tenderloin.  Conservative zeal led to the closing of approximately 125 districts.

In 1918, following the U.S.’s entry into the war, Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act that gave the federal government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having venereal disease for the “protection of the military and naval forces of the United States.”  It required that the woman undergo a medical test to determine her disease status.  At this historical moment, neither a scientifically valid diagnosis nor a medically approved treatment for VD was available. (The Wassermann test was accepted after the war.)  The Act allotted $1 million for a “civilian quarantine and isolation fund.”

The act resulted from two critical developments.  First, syphilis was an epidemic throughout the country; in 1916, an estimated 400,000 prostitutes died from it.  Second, there was a high rate of venereal-disease infection among American military recruits; an estimated one-third of the men joining the service were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.

Unescorted and single women were seized in periodic roundups, often on city streets, in public parks or outside soldiers’ camps. Some were indeed prostitutes, while others simply teenage girls attracted to the glamor of soldiers going off to war or “charity girls” who had sex in exchange for meals or entertainment.  They were designated “domestic enemies,” accused of undermining the war effort.

The War Department established a quarantine policy and local authorities implemented it; it was a nationwide witch-hunt.  The women seized were presumed guilty and, if found infected, were often given indeterminate sentences.  Half the women quarantined were reported infected and, of those incarcerated, the average period of imprisonment was ten weeks.  Some were confined for a year or more.

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The nation’s entry into the Great War permitted local authorities to suspend habeas corpus, effectively denying Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure.  It permitted the arrest of any unescorted woman simply walking down the street on suspicion of being a prostitute.

During World War I, the War Department established a quarantine policy and local authorities implemented it; it was a nationwide witch-hunt.  It was not unlike what took place in the “round-‘em-up” sweeps targeting Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor and Arab and Muslim men as part of the government-initiated hysteria following 9/11.  Not unlike the anti-immigrant craze gripping the nation today, the abrogation of individual civil liberties has a long history in America.

These are episodes in American history that we should not forget especially at a time when we reflect on the tragedy of 9/11.

David Rosen can be reached at

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out