I find myself wondering lately if the collective mood of our nation today is similar to what must have been present in 1942 when thousands of American citizens were declared enemy aliens, removed from their homes, stripped of their land and belongings, and herded into “war relocation camps.”
The fear kindled by the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, grew into a fevered conflagration of bigotry and hysteria that resulted in the forced internment of approximately 110,000 Japanese residents, of which about two-thirds were American citizens. Anyone with as little as 1/16th Japanese heritage was considered suspect and could be forced into internment camps which spread throughout the country, most notably on the West Coast.
It was acceptable, in the months and years after Pearl Harbor, to openly bash all people of Japanese descent, including legal residents, naturalized citizens and those born on U.S. soil. A Los Angeles Times editorial supporting the internment program referred to the “accidental citizenship” of children born in the U.S. to Japanese parents and concluded that: “While it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, … such treatment should be accorded to each and all of them while we are war with their race.”
The Army general in charge of administering the internment of Japanese Americans testified to Congress that: “They are a dangerous element. … It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. … We must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
The injustices committed upon these American citizens of Japanese descent were officially recognized with a formal public apology issued by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1988. The accompanying legislation approved by Congress and signed by Reagan stated that the government’s actions during World War II were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Today, the voices of anti-Muslim sentiment are growing increasingly loud in our public discourse, fanned by the heated rhetoric of the blogosphere, cable news and viral e-mails. Isolated instances of attacks on Islamic mosques and Quran burnings are now occurring. Some political leaders are fanning the flames of anti-Muslim fear; faintly echoing comments made 60 years ago. Some do so for crass political opportunism — fear-mongering as a campaign strategy.
The anti-Muslim sentiment is spreading despite the repeated admonishments by former President George W. Bush and the continuing declarations of President Barack Obama that we are not at war with Islam, nor with Muslims. We are fighting an organized band of Islamic extremists, terrorists and murderers who attacked us on 9/11. They belong to no state and they pursue their extremist ideology even against mainstream moderate Muslim communities around the globe. They are, in fact, at war with their fellow Muslims as well as with the U.S.
Muslims perished in the attacks of 9/11. Muslims lost family members in the Twin Towers. Muslims have donned American uniforms to fight wars for this country, their country. Our military troops are still in two Mid-East countries, fighting side by side with Muslims every day to combat the power and influence of extremism. We are not at war with the Islamic faith.
When we allow ourselves to slip into demonizing the adherents of a religion, when we allow ourselves to adopt extremist, intolerant views, we are working against the very goals our men and women in uniform are putting their lives on the line to accomplish at our request.
When we begin to believe it is acceptable to deem an entire race, or an ethnicity or a religion as evil in the name of some greater good, we move ourselves closer to developing a national mindset that permitted the shameful episode of Japanese internment in our history.
Let us be clear what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. We cannot provide for our nation’s security by selectively abandoning our founding principles based on fear and hate.