I know it's a cliche to say that history repeats, but sometimes cliches have grains of truth that are hard to ignore. And while I find it hard to believe that we won't learn lessons from certain historical events by NOT repeating them, I do think that we do repeat patterns, we just do them with a slight difference, and in the case of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with a particular vengeance.
As some of you regular readers know, I'm working on a book chapter about the Japanese American Internment/Incarceration. For people whose knowledge of this particularly shameful period may be a bit scanty, in a nutshell FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which allowed the military to designate portions of the nation as military zones and allowed the military to target people they believed were threats to national security--pretty much carte blanche. There is NOTHING in the language of Executive Order 9066 that claims a particular region of the U.S. (or the world for that matter because we went into South America to detain people we thought were a threat and we brought these people to the West Coast) and there was nothing in the language that designated ethnicity or race. Of course, as MANY academics and other researchers have uncovered, there was really one and one and only group of people that the U.S. had any intention of detaining, evacuating, and incarcerating: people of Japanese ancestry.
Yes, German, Italian, and Japanese nationals (largely men) were all rounded up and put in detention centers. But no other ethnic group was rounded up en masse: men, women, children, citizens and non-citizens, young, old, infirm, pregnant, and mixed-race people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast of the U.S. (or in parts of Alaska and South America) were targeted and put into concentration camps, many for the duration of World War II.
[By the way, if you are curious about my use of terminology, like "concentration camp" and "incarceration" you can read this post from a few months back. And a great site for a more thorough look at the Japanese American Incarceration is Densho.]
OK, fast forward a few decades. There is an active reparations and redress movement underway--Japanese Americans and other allies band together to demand an apology from the U.S. government, to acknowledge the unconstitutionality of Executive Order 9066, and to receive monetary retribution for the pain and suffering and humiliation of this HUGELY SIGNIFICANT event that was a trampling of the constitutional rights of ALL PEOPLE LIVING IN THE U.S. DURING WORLD WAR II. Because while the government decided to only target people of Japanese ancestry, the truth is, the military could have decided that Italian and German Americans were also a threat and detained and incarcerated them as well.
HR442 passes; Ronald Reagan signs it and issues an official apology; Japanese Americans still alive receive reparation payments, but perhaps even more importantly, there is an official apology--an acknowledgment that what the U.S. government did was WRONG, and there is money set aside to educate the public about this shameful part of U.S. history.
Now, you may ask, what does this history lesson from the past have to do with me NOW?
This is taken from The New York Times yesterday:
"President Bush has the legal power to order the indefinite military detentions of civilians captured in the United States, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled on Tuesday in a fractured 5-to-4 decision."
That's right. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the President of the United States has the right to detain, indefinitely, any civilian captured in the U.S. and to hold that person without producing any proof of WHY this person should be held, other than the desire to do so. NYU Law Professor, Jonathan L. Hafetz called the ruling "deeply disturbing" and observes that
“'This decision means the president can pick up any person in the country — citizen or legal resident — and lock them up for years without the most basic safeguard in the Constitution, the right to a criminal trial.'”
[To read the article in full, click here. To hear about it reported in NPR yesterday morning, click here]
Are you worried? You should be. And I'm not saying that you should be worried because someone is going to knock on your door any minute now and drag you from your home. You should be worried that the government is doing this AT ALL to ANYONE.
We are living in uncertain times, but this DOES NOT mean we give up our ideals. And it doesn't mean we forget history. We did this. We rounded up people and we put them in concentration camps and held them for an unspecified period of time. And we did this, not because they posed a real military threat but because there was public approval for doing so. Because it was reassuring to many in the U.S. at the time that the government was doing something that showed it was serious about securing borders and keeping Americans safe.
In his book Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II, scholar Tetsuden Kashima writes about two architects behind the Japanese American Internment/Incarceration: Edward Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit and Attorney General Francis Biddle:
"In the 1985 interview, Ennis talked about his personal views on the internment episode and maintained that Attorney General Biddle had also taken this perspective. Ennis claimed that both he and Biddle were reluctant to pursue the internment policy but justified their actions on the basis of what he felt was prevailing public sentiment. He asserted that some measures had to be taken against the Japanese and Germans in America. The rationale for the arrests and internment is a significant part of his statement--not such earlier claims as the individual's alleged dangerousness or the prevention of espionage and sabotage, but rather public relations" (53).
Journalist Jane Mayer has recently written a book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, in which she notes that about 1/3 to 1/2 of the detainees at Guananamo are NOT terrorists--they are men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or men who simply were of the right ethnicity and nationality and religion for the U.S. to target, to arrest without cause, and to bring to Guantanamo.
[To hear Mayer's interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, click here]
And it's not just men. And not just men from Arab and Muslim nations in the Middle East who were being targeted. Women and children were also rounded up in days following 9/11--American citizens of Arab and Muslim descent. One such tragic family tale is recounted in performer and filmmaker Cynthia Fujikawa's extremely moving documentary short, Day of Remembrance.
And here's where we come full circle. Cynthia Fujikawa's father, Jerry Fujikawa, was incarcerated in Manazanar until his induction into the 442nd regiment. Years later, in an effort to uncover a family secret and to discover aspects of her father's life that remained clouded to her, Fujikawa developed her one-woman performance piece, Old Man River, which was eventually filmed and made its way through the film festival circuit. But what she did following 9/11 was to link the events of WWII and the Japanese American Internment/Incarceration with the abuse of civil rights against Muslim and Arab Americans, and she came up with a very moving documentary, Day of Remembrance, which you can see in full (it's 8 minutes long) by clicking here (you'll need to actually double click on the image of candles on the right to get the film playing).
The Enemy Combatant Ruling is something you should know about. And it's something we should all educate ourselves about and to take action on. To let others know. To write our legislators. To say, this is not OK. I do not want to live in fear. I believe in civil rights for all. And I will stand up for everyone's civil rights because their rights are intimately connected to mine.