We knew we weren't the enemy
A familiar knot of anxiety over post-9/11 civil liberties issues shows a nisei how far America has come - and still has to go.
WINTER SPRINGS, FLA.
Human rights can be a fragile victim in a nation's zeal to battle an enemy. We Japanese-Americans learned firsthand how, once lost, individual justice is painfully difficult to regain.Skip to next paragraph
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So it is that with every news story about Americans hashing through their uneasy post-9/11 relationship to all things with an "Arab face" - from the outright abuses at Abu Ghraib to the detentions without charge of "enemy combatants" at Guantánamo, to the lingering suspicions on America's Main Streets - I'm reminded of what it was like to be an "American with a Japanese face" during World War II.
It was 61 years ago that this newspaper published my account of being a nisei (second generation Japanese-American), born in Seattle, college educated - senior class president at Whitman College - and forced to relocate to a resettlement camp surrounded by barbed wire.
"An American with a Japanese face," as it was headlined, was written 17 months after Pearl Harbor. Though it was cast in the controlled tone of the budding journalist I was, I read it now and recognize all the elements of fear, suspicion, and outrage contained in today's stories of post-9/11 prejudices and injustices. Likewise, I see in it a good bit of the human kindness that peeked through the troubles of the time then - as they often do today. (The article can be read at www.csmonitor.com/hosokawa.)
The 9/11 commission - which heard testimony about the security backlash Japanese-Americans suffered in World War II - touched briefly on the conundrum of security vs. civil liberties in its final report last week: "Our history has shown us that insecurity threatens liberty. Yet, if our liberties are curtailed, we lose the values that we are struggling to defend."
Indeed, this is nothing new. But my own experience is an example of the difficult trial and error - and eventual adjustments - America, under its remarkable Constitution, is capable of.
My article told of the beginning of a fascinating, circuitous, ultimately rewarding American journey through bad times and good - from the warmth of my parents' modest Seattle home to the comfortable house alongside an Orlando area golf course where I write today. As well as my life turned out and as enjoyable and carefree as my retirement years have been, today, the shadow of world hostilities and the way they play out in our American experience troubles me.
The tragedies of 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, have triggered shock and anger. And the resulting war has created hatreds and suffering that will affect us for a long time. As civil rights controversies mount in our "war on terror," I feel that old knot of worry I once knew: Being perceived as an enemy by my own, beloved country.
More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans (citizens and aliens alike) on the West Coast were forced into relocation camps in 1942 because the Roosevelt administration - in the fearful haste of war - deemed us a military threat. We were charged with no crime and denied due process and equal protection out of racist motives. That's clear today. It was not fair. But it was a different time.
The lessons of the past - that a foreign face does not always equate with danger - ought to give Americans today the courage to safeguard freedoms and the wisdom to protect the rights of all who are affected by hostilities of the moment.