They say history repeats itself. But usually not quite so quickly. On December 19, the press reported that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had arrested hundreds of Muslim men in Los Angeles alone. The INS refused to say how many had been detained but, speaking anonymously, did not dispute lawyers’ estimates of 500-700 detainees. One family described a 16-year-old boy being taken, in tears, from the arms of his pregnant mother. It was as if a September 2001 archive news loop had mistakenly made its way into today’s news.

The next day, INS officials complained that the figures had been inflated, said the actual number was only in the “low 200s” and reported that most were being released. But whether in the 200s or the 500s, the latest wave of arrests of Muslim men suggests that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department continues to prosecute the war on terrorism as if it’s a war on Arabs and Muslims generally–by treating Arab and Muslim men as presumptively guilty, wasting precious resources targeting innocents and alienating the very communities he needs to work with if he is to have any chance of capturing Al Qaeda operatives.

The recent arrests in Los Angeles stem from the INS’s “call-in” Special Registration program, the latest in a series of Justice Department ethnic profiling initiatives. It requires foreign nationals from twenty Arab and Muslim countries to report to INS offices to be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. Most of those arrested came from the largely conservative, decidedly nonterrorist population of Iranian immigrants who have settled in the Los Angeles area.

In terms of security gained for liberty lost, no post-9/11 initiative has been more of a bust than Ashcroft’s mass preventive-detention campaign. Ashcroft proudly defended it last year as a way of getting “suspected terrorists” off the streets. Since 9/11 the government has detained an estimated 2,000 such “suspected terrorists,” yet only four detainees have been charged with any terrorist-related crime (and none have been convicted), and virtually all have been affirmatively cleared by the FBI of any involvement in terrorism. But the campaign continues.

Two days after the terrorist attacks, Ashcroft warned that “we must not descend to the level of those who perpetrated Tuesday’s violence by targeting individuals based on their race, their religion or their national origin.” Since then he has directed a preventive-detention campaign almost exclusively against Arab and Muslim immigrants, formally made a top priority of deporting foreign nationals from Arab and Muslim countries, called in for “voluntary” interviews thousands of male immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries and now requires roughly the same population to register and report to the INS on a regular basis.

As many have pointed out, terrorists are unlikely to report themselves as such just because they are told to register. And if intelligence officials are right that Al Qaeda sleepers generally lead quiet, unremarkable lives in conformity with legal requirements, the INS would have no way of knowing even if an Al Qaeda member were to walk in. The real reason for the program, it seems, is to detain and interrogate Arabs and Muslims without regard to any objective links to terrorism, and to create a new round of legal obligations to serve as pretexts for future arrests in the next preventive-detention wave. It’s fully in keeping with Ashcroft’s announcement earlier in 2002 that the INS would start enforcing a requirement that all immigrants report changes of address within ten days of moving. The theory seems to be that if we impose enough technical obligations on the immigrant community, and especially on its Arab and Muslim sector, we’ll make them all vulnerable to arrest at the Attorney General’s discretion. As one of the signs at a protest in Los Angeles asked, “What’s Next? Concentration Camps?”