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Thursday, October 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

You don't defend freedom by casting it aside

'Let's send them back to the Middle East."

It's an argument that's gained a certain seductiveness since the day we saw skyscrapers stabbed by airplanes. Now, there's this anthrax scare, which may or may not have a foreign connection.

Enough, the argument goes. Let's send them back home.

We'll never know how many barroom philosophers have made that argument recently. But until last week, I had not heard it made by the presumably sober and thoughtful. That changed when Mona Charen, a nationally syndicated, politically conservative columnist, wrote a piece in which she argued that, while we mustn't "persecute, insult or harass Arabs and Muslims within our borders," we should kick them out.

Every tourist, every student. American citizens of Middle Eastern ancestry would be exempt from expulsion, but Charen thinks we should watch them closely just the same. Charen also favors "ethnic profiling" in which every "Middle Eastern-looking" truck driver in the country would be pulled over and questioned to make sure he wasn't carrying hazardous materials as part of some terrorist plot.

It's an idea so absurd in its xenophobia you can hardly take it seriously. Then you realize it's so absurd you can't afford not to.

Still, I'm not going to deal with the logistical impossibility of it. Won't go into the fact that when you surveil people indiscriminately and kick them out of the country without cause, you've pretty much blown any promise not to "persecute, insult or harass."

And I'll pass just lightly over an observation that this nation of immigrants usually rushes to put its own highest ideals to the torch whenever some immigrant group is perceived as a threat. It happened in 1798 when Congress, fearing war with France, gave President John Adams the power to expel summarily any foreigner he considered dangerous. Happened in 1942 when the federal government interned thousands of American citizens of Japanese heritage. If Mona Charen has her way, it will happen again, now.

But for all that, here's the thing I wonder: How would we ever explain ourselves?

What, for example, would this say to an American Muslim? Let's say he's a trucker, an Army veteran. Let's say he loves this country, chose to serve this country, because here, who you are matters more than what you are. Then one day, he gets pulled over for the third time in 50 miles by authorities for whom none of these things matter, panicky men with guns for whom, no matter what he does, he can never be quite "American" enough. And let's say this all happens with the sanction of the government.

How could we deny that he joined the military and risked his life defending rights that don't extend to him? How could we ever convince him that he was not wrong about America?

For that matter, how could we tell a terrorist that he wasn't right about America? Some fanatic who sees in us nothing but Arab-hating hypocrisy, lies and moral decay. How do we convince him he didn't have our number all along?

I understand the temptation of the expedient answer. I also understand that you don't save freedom by killing it. You don't defeat those who seek to destroy what you are by destroying what you are.

To put it simply: Being America means something. This is what we've always claimed. It's what many in the world have always believed. But if meaning something is a privilege, it's also a burden.

It's easy enough to jettison that burden when it becomes inconvenient. Except, of course, that nations, like women and men, are defined not by their behavior when times are easy, but rather, by their behavior when times are not.

If, at this critical juncture, we choose not to be what we've always said we were, history — ours and much of the world's — will judge us unworthy of our own ideals . . . again.

Mona Charen says we can't be too politically correct to defend America. I say that if she has her way, there won't be much "America" left to defend.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: leonardpitts@mindspring.com.

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