By Steven Greenhut
One of the most disturbing lessons I’ve learned following 9/11 is that many people will go along with just about any government-imposed outrage if it’s couched in the right terms and plays on their fears.
In recent years, we’ve seen the federal government become increasingly aggressive in efforts to spy on, detain, wiretap, monitor, imprison, search and harass not only suspected “enemy combatants” but pretty much anyone, at its discretion.
I never thought I’d see civil liberties treated so shabbily or witness so many Americans who so willingly submit to the authorities, but odd circumstances lead to troubling results.
It’s too difficult to draw broad lessons from contemporary, ongoing political disputes. So I will zero in on events from 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the creation of military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
Then Gen. John DeWitt — the Western Defense commander, who referred to Japanese as members of an “enemy race” — ordered the removal of 120,000 ethnic Japanese from their homes along the West Coast and their placement in internment camps in the desert.
The justification was to protect against espionage and sabotage, although there was scant evidence that Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals living on the West Coast had engaged in any such activities.
An official propaganda video of the time declared that the immediate internment — Japanese-Americans had only days to sell their possessions and board buses bound for the camps — was actually for their own good, to protect them from anti-Japanese sentiment. Such are the excuses that governments make.
It’s disturbing that more Americans did not defend the Japanese and the Constitution at the time, even though it’s not hard to understand the conditions that allowed for such massive obliteration of civil liberties. World war was raging. Only 14 months earlier, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. The media were pounding the war drums.
One columnist, quoted in the book, “Reflections,” about the Manzanar relocation center in California, made this argument: “I’m for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior … let ’em be pinched, hurt, hungry … let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone who carry his blood. Personally, I hate the Japanese.”
Last year when I first researched this topic, I found such bile to be common in newspapers. Recently, I drove to Manzanar, a National Park Service site just off U.S. Highway 395. I walked the 200-acre high-desert site. The main auditorium is the only original building remaining, and it’s now home to an extensive museum. Two barracks from the era have been moved to the site and are being restored. Mostly, a visitor will see vast open spaces and foundations of buildings that housed 10,000 people at one point.
A stone monument in the cemetery bears the Japanese characters that translate, “Soul Consoling Tower.” But it’s hard to imagine anything consoling about having been moved there against one’s will.
Those imprisoned there lived in long dormitories, with little privacy and few protections from the dust, winds, snow and rain that seeped in through the cracks in the shoddy buildings.
Consider, as “Reflections” pointed out, that most of these people were second-generation Americans or Nisei, “American born, American-educated and American in heart and mind. No charges were filed, no hearing held, only the vague term ‘military necessity’ was used.”
I’m not sure I would ever get over such an abuse. Many of those agitating for the removal of the Japanese from the West Coast were local business owners, farmers and residents who coveted the Japanese-Americans’ property. Reason magazine reports that the interned Japanese were deprived of $150 million in property losses alone, in 1940s dollars, and that eventual compensation amounted to a pittance.
Some conservatives at the time ranted about the yellow menace, but progressives, such as FDR, were among the chief architects for the internment.
As I’ve learned over the years, our liberties are in the deepest peril when Left and Right are in agreement on anything.
Steven Greenhut writes for Freedom Newspapers. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org