The horrendous events of 11 September 2001, engulfed our nation
in terror and confusion. But from the outset, there was no loss
for a metaphor; in unison, the media and our government leaders
summoned the memory of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "America
Under Attack," the headline banner used by the media, was often accompanied
by "The Day of Infamy," echoing words spoken by President Franklin
Roosevelt immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December
1941. Pearl Harbor drew this country into World War II, and, in
a New York Times Op-Ed piece that appeared this past Thursday, Thomas
L. Friedman asks pointedly, "Does my country really understand that
this is World War III? And if this attack was the Pearl Harbor of
World War III, it means there is a long, long war ahead."
The historical reference is unavoidable, of course. After all,
this week marks only the second time, after Pearl Harbor, that our
nation has been attacked so massively by a foreign entity within
our national borders. As we try to come to terms with our anger,
fear, and loss, we should also seek compassion and understanding
from the full force of the Pearl Harbor metaphor. Like this week's
event, enormous number of lives were lost in the Pearl Harbor attack.
But there is something else.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the worst single act of racism spearheaded
by our own government against Americans took place. On 19 February
1942, two and a half months after the attack, President Roosevelt
signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. Army to EVACUATE
people of Japanese descent from areas bordering the Pacific Ocean
(my emphasis). This resulted in over 100,000 such people, mostly
Americans born in America, to be incarcerated in camps in places
such as Arkansas, Arizona, and Utah. These Americans, young and
old, were leading normal American lives in San Francisco, Los Angeles,
Seattle, and other places "bordering the Pacific Ocean." They were
given just seven days to gather up whatever they could carry in
suitcases, and were put on trains to destinations unknown to them.
Many lost their houses, cars, pets. George Takei, "Mr. Sulu" in
the original Star Trek television series, was four years
old when he and his family were put on a train in Los Angeles that
was bound for a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. He recounts this memory
in his book; the first thing he saw after the grueling three-day
train ride was the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp. This
terrible act was justified on the grounds of some vague "threats
to national security." But FBI reports gave no indication whatsoever
that anyone was engaged in espionage. It was racism pure and simple.
Beyond the euphemistic official language of the Executive Order
("evacuate"), some leaders did not try to mask the ugly hate. Lieut.
General John L. DeWitt testified in a congressional hearing about
the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, that "A Jap's a Jap...It
makes no difference whether he is an American or not."
Mark Twain said of history, it doesn't repeat, but it rhymes.
"Japanese" and "Muslim/Arab" don't rhyme. But we are already seeing
acts of hate against Muslims and people of Arabic descent that echo
the hatred following Pearl Harbor. A radio announcer was heard saying
that "we should round them up and send them home for their own safety,"
which recreates the "evacuate" language of Executive Order 9066.
Just as young "Mr. Sulu" was the target of acts of hate, a
school bus carrying children of Arabic decent was the target of stone- and
bottle-throwing. Just as innocent Japanese-Americans lived in fear
after Pearl Harbor, many Muslim and Arabic people in this country
are living in terror, some even unable to leave their own homes
in fear for their life and that of their children. Finger pointing
is already starting about the terrible mistake made by the intelligence
organizations that allowed the horrific acts of this week to take
place. We cannot make the equally terrible mistake of allowing
hate to rule.
Remember Pearl Harbor.
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