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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Let’s not repeat history by identifying a type of person as an enemy

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

In December 1941, Americans were understandably rattled.

The Japanese military had bombed Pearl Harbor. The U.S. military forces were stunned – battleships sunk, aircraft destroyed, 2,400 lives lost.

What the country did next was what people often do in times of crisis and fear: We identified a type of person as an enemy, and then treated all people of that type as an enemy, even though most of these people were not our enemies, even though most of these people were our fellow Americans. In so doing, we trampled on the finest principles of this nation – that we are all equal, that we are presumed innocent, that we cannot be unjustly imprisoned – while sending troops to battle in defense of those very principles.

Between 1942 and 1945, the country forced roughly 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into 10 fenced camps spread around the inland West. In the years after the war, the country mostly forgot all about it while emphatically remembering American heroism in Europe. It faded as just another chapter in our history, and like most such chapters – the ones that reveal our tendency to scapegoat broadly and unjustly when we’re scared – it seems to have provided us little opportunity for reflection or learning.

I grew up 38 miles from one of the largest internment camps, the Minidoka Internment Camp in Hunt, Idaho. It is no exaggeration to say we never talked about it. Perhaps one of my teachers brought it up at some point, but I can’t recall it. We didn’t have a unit on it in Idaho history class or take any field trips there – none of the daylong excursions from school or Boy Scouts like the ones we took to, say, the National Guard Armory or the Air Force base in Mountain Home.

I’ve been thinking about all this forgetting lately, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the disheartening vitriol aimed at Syrian refugees. One of our common reactions – one that is understandable and even natural, I think – is that in the face of a grave threat, or in pursuit of a righteous vengeance, there is no place for the “niceties” of American values or humane compassion. Orphans be damned. There is simply no time for kindness when there are so many asses to kick.

We’re seeing this now, of course. Our political rush to turn away Syrian refugees has become a race between mindlessness and heartlessness: The candidate who slams the door hardest in the face of a suffering family wins! We are asked the slippery question: If we let in 10,000 refugees and 9,999 aren’t terrorists, will we have been wise?

Turn that question around and you get closer to the ugly and impractical dynamic at its core: If one terrorist anywhere is a Syrian, shouldn’t we treat all Syrians everywhere as terrorists? And if we treat all Syrians as terrorists, shouldn’t we treat all people who look like Syrians as terrorists? And if you don’t know much about Syrians, don’t all people with skin of a certain shade look like Syrians? Doesn’t that mean that all people with skin of a certain shade are to be treated as terrorists?

The internment of Japanese-Americans was different in many ways from the current scenario – Syrian refugees aren’t citizens, for one thing. But the worst of our defensive response then shares something with the worst of our defensive response now: identifying our enemy as whole populations of “not-us.” It’s what allowed us to go blundering to war against a country that did not attack us as revenge for 9/11. It’s what allowed us to employ a brutal and ineffective torture regime that caught innocent people in its net. It’s what allows us to view extremist acts through the lens of broader cultural warfare and worldwide religious conflict, which is one ingredient in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s our fear versus our humanity, and they are in the arena again.

Seventy-five years ago, the war hero, newspaper publisher and politician Frank Knox was named secretary of the Navy, at a time when the question of whether America would enter World War II was a heated one. Knox supported war – and more to the point, he supported rounding up Japanese-Americans in mass camps. He supported this as early as 1933, eight years before Pearl Harbor. He just knew that “Japs” were bad.

One of Knox’s most effective rhetorical techniques was repeating frightening and untrue things about Japanese-Americans and resorting to vague claims of security and defense. He just kept saying these things, even though they weren’t true.

After the Pearl Harbor attacks, Knox flew to Hawaii, “investigated” for 36 hours and declared that the attack had been aided by the traitorous “Fifth Column work” of Japanese citizens in Hawaii. He peddled this story to FDR, and stuck to it after the FBI and Army concluded that there had been no sabotage at Pearl Harbor. And yet, for many Americans, there was simply no question: The enemy is everywhere.

Newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote: “The Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and woman right now, and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.”

The government had no information at the time of any planned sabotage. But the hell with habeas corpus – American citizens of a certain shade and ethnicity were boarded up and hauled away, forced to live in tarpaper shacks behind barbed wire, on the basis of “military necessity.”

For no reason other than satisfying the impulses of ignorance and fear.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on twitter at @vestal13.

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