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

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...