When I was a child, I had an experience which frightened me then and which scares me now as I hear overtones of the same kind of talk.
I attended grade school in Wenatchee, WA. One day, in early 1942, three sheriff’s deputies came unannounced into our first grade classroom. To a child of six, everything in your world seems large. So these three with big guns on their hips, brimmed hats, deep voices and their brusk manner seemed huge.
They came to arrest three of my small Japanese-American classmates. At that age, all three were likely born in this country. One ran crying to the teacher but was eventually carried out of the room as were the other two. By then, all of us were crying. And scared.
Our little minds didn’t know it for what it was: one of the most embarrassing and wrong-headed national actions in our history. By Executive Order 9066, Feb. 19, 1942, local military commanders were authorized to designate exclusion zones (most of Oregon and Washington States and all of California) and to “relocate” all people of Japanese ancestry … no matter how remote that ancestry … to mostly isolated internment camps.
Oregon had one camp near Portland; Washington two; California about a dozen. They were called “relocation camps” and our government “relocated’ about 120,000 Japanese-Americans for no other reason than their race. They stayed in those camps until after the war when many just faded into oblivion upon their release. Most had lost homes, businesses, farms and family members. All they had.
I’ve been to a couple of those camps and nearly all were barracks buildings of tar paper and lathe, remote locations, short on necessities of life, crowded, very hot or very cold depending on the weather. It was up to the “internees” to provide most of the necessary services.
While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of the executive order in 1944, it sidestepped the issue of interning only Japanese-Americans. But in 1988, Pres. Reagan signed a bill apologizing for the internments; a bill which noted “race prejudice, war hysteria and political leadership failures.” Reparations of more than $1.5 billion were paid to survivors.
Why bring up that tragic national stain now? Why talk about one of our nation’s worst moments? Because in coffee shops from the small town where I live to fancy bars on Capital Hill to the national media, you can hear people talking about Muslims in this country. Any Muslim.
In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre, allegedly by a man born in Virginia who happens to worship God as a Muslim, conversations are again turning to people who are “different” or are part of a “foreign” religion and whether “they” can be trusted or whether “they” should they be in the military or whether “they” can be Muslim and still be American. Or “How would you feel if a young Muslim man sat next to you on an airplane or the bus?”
These “conversations” … and some of my e-mails … are beginning to sound like the history books detailing our national mood in 1939-41 American coffee shops. And Capital Hill. You don’t hear racism or religion directly now so much as you hear “difference.” They are “different.” “Their religion is not American” as if the roots of Catholicism, Judaism or even Methodists and Presbyterians are.
It’s small talk now. But you hear it on radio and TV talk shows and the Internet. Nothing open or directly accusatory. Nothing overt. Just talk.
But to those of us who know the last such “talk” turned into a national executive order affecting the lives and futures of thousands of people who had done nothing wrong but be born of another race, it is too familiar. To those who have studied the history of that last tragic political rush-to-judgment, there are unsettling parallels.
We are a country badly divided at the moment in nearly all ways. Many are scared, frustrated and looking for answers that don’t exist. We are trying to maintain our individual economic and social balances on a platform that keeps shifting underfoot. Very much like 1939-41 when huge wars loomed over a nation trying to stay out of them.
These are the sorts of conditions … the kinds of political grounds … in which division and prejudice grow well. What starts as talk can be fed until it becomes irrational public policy capitalizing on what divides us rather than what unites us. There are those that profit handsomely from directing a willing public to narrow points of view and political “purity.” We cannot afford them.
I think more of us would ignore the “talk” if we remembered three scared, crying first grade friends … who just disappeared.