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Fear Led Us To Intern Japanese Americans. Who’s Next?

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Fear Led Us To Intern Japanese Americans. Who’s Next?

Japanese Internment

Imagine this.

You are a boy, living in a child’s blissful unaware. You are not terribly different from other kids. Maybe you play stickball in the street and pretend to be Joe DiMaggio. Maybe you listen to “The Lone Ranger” on the Philco. Maybe you’re crazy for Superman.

Maybe it’s a good life.

Then comes that sudden Sunday in December. All at once, everyone is angry about something bad that happened at a place called Pearl Harbor, and people you know — people who know you — are staring at you as if you are no longer who you always were.

Two months later — 75 years ago this week — there is news about a new executive order signed by President Roosevelt. Soon, the poster starts appearing on lamp posts. The headline reads: “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” It is an evacuation order.

As a child, you know nothing about the column in the San Francisco Examiner where Henry McLemore wrote: “Let ’em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it … Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

And you didn’t hear how Assistant War Secretary John McCloy said, “If it is a question of the safety of the country [and] the Constitution … why, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

All you know is that suddenly, with maybe a week’s notice, you are on a train, being taken away from your Philco and from stickball games, from Superman comic books, from, well … everything.

Maybe your name is Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, and you will someday be Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” movies. Maybe your name is Hosato Takei, and as George Takei, you will become the original Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek.” Maybe your name is Norman Mineta and you will be a congressman.

But in the desolate camps to which you are exiled, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you might someday be. In the camps, as they say, “A Jap is a Jap.”

So in the camps, you live behind barbed wire, under armed guard in tar paper barracks with toilets where you must do your business in public view.

You live with inferno heat, aching cold, and gritty dust. Yet, you struggle to hold on to who you used to be.

You play baseball. You draw and sing. And you go to school, where every morning you stand, hand over your heart, and recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America …”

Seventy-five years later, communal memory recoils from what the United States of America did to you. And as we tend do when memory indicts conscience, we choose to forget.

So many of us no longer know what happened, how you lost your businesses, your homes, how your lives were never again the same.

As many of us forget the story, we also forget its moral: how fear can interdict reason, make you lash out with hatred at harmless people.

Thus, some of us cheered recently when a new executive order was signed and our airports turned to chaos. Some of us echoed McCloy: “The Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

But the rest of us were saddened by what America has done to itself — and to countless innocents — in the spasms of its fear.

The rest of us were stunned by what Winston Churchill called “the confirmed unteachability” of humankind.

We never learn, do we?

Imagine you are a boy, living in a child’s blissful unaware, not terribly different from other kids. Maybe you play hoops at the park and pretend to be Michael Jordan. Maybe you watch Power Rangers. Maybe you’re crazy for Spider-Man.

Maybe it’s a good life.

But then comes a sudden Tuesday in September.

IMAGE: War Relocation Authority – 210-G-2A-572, Records of War Relocation Authority, Record Group 210; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. Wikicommons / United States Department of Interior.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. dbtheonly February 23, 2017

    You left out Dan Inouya.

    I’ll also ask to what extent the valor and devotion showed by the men of the 100th Infantry Batallion and 443rd Infantry Regiment went to defuse the anti Japanese feelings?

    Would an “all Muslim” unit have produced the same result? Is the “War on Terror” susceptible to such actions?

    I contend that the comparisons are invalid. On one hand the anti-Japanese feeling was a result of the fear of a major uprising against the USA by those of Japanese origin. Lest any of my friends scoff, such an uprising was anticipated by many and figured in the Japanese invasion plans of Hawaii. Such an uprising was promoted by many “patriotic” Japanese groups and movements. Japan did represent a clear threat to the USA in 1941.

    The anti-Muslim feeling is the result of a cynical decision by a political party to stoke such fears for their own gain. One can hardly argue that the Caliphate represents a threat to the existence of the USA.

    1. TZToronto February 23, 2017

      No, ISIS is not a direct threat to the United States. However, a number of people I know think that every Muslim person they see is wearing an explosive vest or is planning on stabbing them or performing a decapitation–oh, and that goes for people who are perceived as being Muslim but are really Sikh or Hindu. Simple solutions to complex problems cannot work, but Trump has a bunch of them.

    2. willardcottrell February 23, 2017

      Presumably the Germans were a solid block for the US during ww2. We should have locked them and the Italians up too. Problem is they look too much like the rest of the anglo population. The Japanese were easy to identify (as are trad Muslims). I think that appearance has much to do with it too. Too many Americans have a ‘stereotypical’ misunderstanding of other cultures and use that ignorance to form their stupidity.

      1. dbtheonly February 23, 2017

        Leon Panetta’s Grandad was forcibly relocated as an Italian Subject, during the war.

      2. Dominick Vila February 23, 2017

        You are right. I often wonder how our Christians would react if they saw a realistic depiction of Jesus, a Middle Eastern man often depicted as a man with blonde hair, blue eyes, and Nordic features.

      3. JPHALL February 23, 2017

        Some German and Italian families were also interned.

  2. Dominick Vila February 23, 2017

    What is happening in the home of the brave is not limited to fear. Other important components in the hatred that should be apparent to everyone include ethnic and cultural intolerance, and brainwashing by callous politicians who have convinced the gullible that all their ills are caused by evil foreigners and members of other ethnic or cultural groups, and by other religions.

  3. Bill Smith 999935 February 23, 2017

    I hear the progressives are next.

    1. Dan S February 23, 2017

      No it’s more like the regressives that are next. Look at the town hall meetings where people are ripping a new one in their congressional reps back in Washington. This new revolution is going to make the rise of the Tea Party look like pikers before too long

      1. Bill Smith 999935 February 23, 2017

        It looks more like OWS….you saw how that ended.

        1. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

          Are you talking about how it ended in the real world, or in your Nazi fantasy dreamland? It’s impossible to tell with you deluded bigots any more.

          1. Bill Smith 999935 February 23, 2017

            Hey, it’s the wonder douche again. I will commence to ignoring you … now.

          2. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

            Sorry you couldn’t come up with a good response, Adolf

          3. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

            I love that you posted another reply immediately after saying you were going to ignore me, Cletus.

            You anti-democracy fascists are such incredibly frail hypocrites.

        2. Budjob February 24, 2017

          It would appear that the best part of you,ran down yo Momma’s leg,NAZI fuckface!

          1. Bill Smith 999935 February 24, 2017

            Ha, ha – loser.

      2. dbtheonly February 23, 2017

        Lord Willing.

    2. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

      Hahaha I get it! You’re an America-hating traitor!

      1. Bill Smith 999935 February 23, 2017

        See previous post, wonder douche

        1. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

          OK traitor

        2. I Am Helpy February 23, 2017

          PS: I thought you blocked me, I guess that you’re a liar as well as a bootlicking Nazi coward.

  4. browninghipower February 23, 2017

    With trump blatantly and defiantly calling the mass deportations just beginning ‘military operations’, we will see perhaps the ugliest time of American history, second only to the destruction of Native Americans. Mr Pitts…this column is heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. I’m hopeful, however, that there are enough good and motivated people today that will not allow this to happen.

  5. Budjob February 24, 2017

    Trump,the insane,inept,incompetent Bastard wants an all white society plain,and simple.Next he will try to deport people with big ears,or big noses!Him,and his so called “team’ are some realllly fucked up individuals!

  6. Thoughtopsy February 24, 2017

    If you think President Snowflake looks like a tiny Hitler now, just wait until he sets up the required number of Immigration “Concentration Camps” to deport 11 Million people.


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