Lessons of an intolerant past

 

As horrified Americans recover from Sept. 11, 2001, many continue to compare the attack on New York and the Pentagon to the 1941 strike against our military base at Pearl Harbor. But let's also remember another historically relevant place from the World War II era: A lonely scrap of high desert called Minidoka, Idaho.

There, 9,500 Americans of Japanese descent were forced to live under armed guard in crowded barracks for almost three years. The harsh rooms at Minidoka should remind Americans of a sad but true fact: While times of distress can bring out the best in the American people, they can also elicit our uglier tendencies.

As Americans fight terrorism and terrorists, we must also stand guard against our own ability to lash out against strangers. We must not indulge our anger, allowing fear to become hatred, and hatred to destroy the very values we praise as America's heritage. That's what happened at Minidoka.

Minidoka was a 68,000-acre patch of sagebrush and jackrabbits in the Snake River Plain in February 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That order demanded the relocation of all people of Japanese ancestry living on the Pacific Coast. Canada rapidly followed with a similar order.

In a matter of only weeks, 110,000 Japanese - about 75,000 of them American citizens - were rounded up like cattle and locked in prison-like camps around the American West, in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. Many lost their homes and belongings in the government's scramble to execute the order.

Thousands of Portland and Seattle residents were bused to the inland desert. Almost overnight, Minidoka became one of the largest cities in Idaho. At the time, officials justified the internment because America was at war with Tojo's Japan. Yet the judgment of history has determined that the internment was racism, pure and simple.

During World War II, America was also at war with Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. But America didn't lock up thousands of Italian-Americans or blonde German-Americans. Just Japanese-Americans.

One can only imagine the uproar from white America, had Joe DiMaggio been incarcerated. Yet the tens of thousands of imprisoned Nisei - second-generation Japanese-Americans - were every bit as American as Joltin' Joe. And there was little outcry, only encouragement, from most Americans.

Aside from being a gross violation of the rights of 110,000 people, the internment of Japanese-Americans cannot be justified militarily. What our government spent impounding and feeding these people could have been spent fighting America's real enemies. While thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans were left idle when they could have been helping the war effort. In fact, thousands of internees were allowed to join the Armed Forces; some of them died on the front line.

In World War II, America waged a traditional battle against well-defined enemies. Today, we face a new style of war, against enemies who shroud themselves in deceit and mystery. These people are difficult to understand - they hate us enough to die killing us.

But we must not respond with similar hate. Already, there are examples of hatred by some Americans against Americans of Islamic faith and Middle Eastern descent. In Dallas, a mosque was sprayed with gunfire within 36 hours of the World Trade Tower attack. (No matter that the people who worship there were praying for the victims of the terrorism, not the perpetrators of it.) The FBI says the "retaliatory hate crimes" aimed at Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in the U.S. reportedly include assaults, threats, arson and two murders.

A chilling new poll released by the Siena Research Institute found that one-third of polled New Yorkers favor establishing internment camps "for individuals who authorities identify as being sympathetic to terrorist causes."

This war against terrorism promises to be a long and confusing battle. We can expect more backlashes against innocent people in our society, as it drags on. They could come both as individual actions or official ones.

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote that "Hatred is a feeling which leads to the extinction of values." The hatred of Japan in World War II led to the temporary suspension - if not the extinction - of traditional American values. We lashed out in anger; we incarcerated people who had never been found guilty of anything.

Here in the North American West, we have examples of how freedom-loving people have given in to fear and hatred. They are the internment camps at Minidoka, Idaho, Manzanar, Calif., New Denver, British Columbia, and elsewhere.

The attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon were born of hatred and prejudice. To allow them to breed more of this poisonous brew among us is to allow the hijackers to win.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Kalispell, Montana.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Ben Long

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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