Are we doomed to repeat history? As Manifest Destiny pushed ill-equipped Americans deeper and deeper into traditional native lands, we pointed at “the red man,” symbol of all that was wild, unpredictable, and evil about the American West. We set about to destroy that which we could not and would not understand. We succeeded miserably.
After getting caught with our pants around our ankles in Pearl Harbor, American fury fell full force upon Japanese-Americans. We had a new enemy to castigate, an enemy who was only too easy to spot, to isolate, to uproot, and to dump into crude camps around the country.
One of these camps existed not far from where I live. The Minidoka War Relocation Center imprisoned American citizens and aliens of Japanese ancestry for three years during World War II. While it was just fine for young Japanese-American sons to fight and die in Europe in defense of America, back home their parents, grandparents, and siblings were herded like cattle into crude camps without proper sanitation, ringed with barbed wire and armed guards.
Naturally, after the Japanese attack, Americans feared their ethnic neighbors. How could we be certain where these people’s loyalties lay? Perhaps they would turn on America when push came to shove. Perhaps they were covertly feeding information to their native country. Indeed, maybe one in a thousand was a traitor. But what of the rights of the other 999 citizens?
It is bad enough that by executive order, thousands of people were segregated based upon nothing but their ethnicity. But what happened to their property was even worse. What they could not bring to the camps—which was a lot—was lost forever, pillaged by former neighbors and friends. If they were able to sell their property at all, it netted insanely depreciated values. What wasn’t sold was lost because they could no longer pay property taxes. What we did to this group of people was criminal. And, as a country, we eventually had to pay up. As we looked back upon our behavior with the guilty eyes of a new generation, the Federal Government ponied up over one billion dollars in reparations to a class of people we had once decided was a national threat. Too little, too late.
Since 9/11 and the increasing turmoil in the Middle East, we seem to have forgotten the lessons of our past history of persecution. Today, a congressional hearing explored the danger of Islamic extremists in America. Here we go, all over again!
I recognize that “bad people” exist, and that they can do and have done harm to American citizens, and that fundamentalists (of all types) live in a bubble of fanaticism that promotes violence and twisted logic. But is our only defense against the threat of wackoes the castigation of an entire cast of people—people to be judged by one thing only: their religious convictions? There has to be a better way.
It is supremely ironic to me that the same CBS Evening News cast that covered anti-bullying and anti-harrassment movements, began the half-hour program with a look at Congressional attempts to marginalize Islamic American citizens. Is anybody thinking?