Lest We Forget: A Lesson From the Past

Seventy years after the fact, it still ranks among the most appalling events in U.S. history: on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which allowed military authorities to round up 120,000 JapaneseAmericans and lock them into muddy, fly-blown internment camps for the duration of the war. They were not charged with any crime, nor given anything like due process before being packed off, summarily, to the middle of nowhere. Their only “crime” was in the eye of the beholder – the military authorities and general public – who thought it was enough of a crime to simply look Japanese. Guilt by association trumped innocent-until-proven-guilty, at least “for the duration.”

Most years, this shameful anniversary passes largely unremarked and unremembered in the United States. Not this year. In the spirit of George Santayana’s dictum – “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – Executive Order 9066 and its consequences were recently discussed in an excellent article by Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Floyd Mori, National Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League. The article, aptly titled, “Let’s Not Repeat the Mistakes of History,” (See Huffington Post, 24.Feb.2012.) recounts the sordid history of the internment camps and the eventual recognition by official Washington – years later – of the role of racial prejudice in this dismal chapter of American history.

Quoting from the official 1983 report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Foxman and Mori point to its conclusion that:

“The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it – detention, ending detention and ending exclusion – were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

In other words, we allowed hatred, fear, and irrationality to override the interests of justice, fair play and clear-eyed reason – and we run the same risks today, warn Foxman and Mori, in our treatment of immigrants:

“Now, in 2012, a divisive and polarizing debate over immigration reform, as well as efforts to stereotype MuslimAmericans as potential terrorists after 9/11, threaten the progress we have made in promoting respect and understanding among all Americans and the lessons we have learned from the forced internment of JapaneseAmericans.”

Foxman and Mori note, with justifiable concern, that the immigration debate has degenerated into “hateful rhetoric, profiling, stereotyping, and dehumanizing language about Hispanics, Muslims, and new immigrants to America,” even in a country that remains a nation of immigrants, where arguably we all should know better. Their point? The language of hysteria and immoderation can only lead us astray, toward policies that represent our worst fears, not our best values. In other words: tone it down:

“Make no mistake – there is a direct connection between the tenor of this political debate and the daily lives of immigrants in our communities. Harsh enforcement-only restrictions have fostered fear, mistrust, and discrimination against immigrant and those perceived to be immigrants. […] The xenophobic references to immigrants and criminals, as a threat to our safety, and damaging to American culture have too-frequently derailed meaningful policy debate – and stand in the way of the kind of reforms Americans desperately seek to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.”

For understandable reasons, we may not like to be reminded of these lessons from the past – not least because they hold an unflattering mirror up to our current society; but as Foxman and Mori point out, we ignore these lessons at our peril. So perhaps the best way to honor the victims of this past injustice is to take a stand against the fear, racism, hatred, xenophobia and scapegoating that bedevil our own place and time. Treating immigrants with more respect would be a good place to start.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.