Forgotten history lessons

Indefinite internment of prisoners of war is an invitation to abuse and humiliation. Why are we repeating our horrendous mistake of the past?

Published December 24, 2004 9:31PM (EST)

Will our history be a usable past, or are we destined to fall victim to George Santayana's famous admonition that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it?

A recent Cornell University poll found that 44 percent of Americans believe the government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims. Only a slighter higher percentage of 48 percent believe there should be no such restrictions. And nearly 30 percent responded favorably to the ideas of requiring Muslims to register with the federal government, having undercover agents infiltrate Muslim organizations, and permitting the government to engage in racial profiling.

The poll numbers reflected more substantial support for such measures by Republicans and those who call themselves "highly religious." Republican voters supported restriction and surveillance efforts 2-to-1 over Democrats. The highly religious respondents viewed Islamic countries as violent (64 percent), fanatical (61 percent) and dangerous (64 percent). Less religious folk scored a bit lower, with 49 percent describing Islamic countries as violent, 46 percent as fanatical and 44 percent as dangerous. Small comfort.

Thomas Jefferson's faith in knowledge and education took quite a blow, for the poll revealed that those who more avidly followed television news showed a higher percentage of support for restricting the rights of Muslim-Americans. That might surprise some -- maybe. The day the poll was released (Dec. 17) also brought news of the death of 97-year-old Harry Ueno. Ueno knew firsthand about restricting the rights of ethnic minorities: He was one of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans forcibly removed to internment camps during World War II. Most had been born in the United States, were thus citizens and, in their eagerness to "fit in," had become Christians.

Ueno and his wife and three sons were shipped to Manzanar, near California's Mount Whitney, along with 10,000 other men, women and children. Ueno worked in the mess hall and discovered that camp employees ran a black market, selling sugar intended for the internees but in all likelihood wanted for the operation of alcohol stills. Ueno confronted them and was promptly arrested and jailed. An uprising followed, and two Japanese-Americans were killed by guards. Ueno spent three years moving to different jails, including a year in solitary confinement. He was never charged with a crime or given a hearing. Ueno's story puts a human face on what apparently is a mere abstraction for most Americans. Democracy and freedom always hang by the slenderest of threads.

"Internment camps" was a lame euphemism for "concentration camps." The latter term arose from the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, but for us today it raises images of Nazi Germany and horrifying memories of death camps, the Gestapo and the S.S. True, no ovens for humans operated in Manzanar and other internment camps, but the camps' occupants had few rights or freedoms. (Well, they could join the Boy Scouts.)

Internment is an invitation to abuse, degradation and humiliation. We only have to note the latest horrifying reports regarding the treatment and fate of uncharged prisoners at Guantánamo and at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prisons in Iraq. Unfortunately, a few low-level convictions have served to obscure the larger meaning and issues of the treatment of prisoners of war.

Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, not one to hold an abiding respect for civil rights and liberties, initially opposed the military's evacuation of the Japanese-Americans from their homes. Typically, his position was rooted in jealousy for his bureaucratic authority. He believed -- quite rightly -- that he had excellent knowledge of Japanese elements (mostly aliens) with a potential for sabotage. In the days following Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded up several hundred suspects from lists it and the military had compiled. All were Japanese nationals, most were far above military age, and among them were Buddhist and Shinto priests. No Japanese-American (citizen or resident alien) committed an act of sabotage during the war.

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 granted $20,000 in reparations for those Japanese-Americans who survived their forcible evacuation. The amount was a pittance for their loss of nearly four years of productive life, their freedom and their dignity. The law reinforced Americans' overwhelming sense for half a century that a wrong had been committed. An exception is the recent publication of a wholly undocumented, unfair and unbalanced defense of the policy by Michelle Malkin, a Fox News commentator -- a work clearly intended to justify future internment in our current war against terror. Or is it actually against Muslims?

If our Muslim fellow Americans -- whether first, second or third generation -- ponder this poll, and remember the consequences of internment for Japanese citizens and noncitizens alike, then this America cannot be the land for their dreams but, rather, their nightmares. The rest of should take our cue from this horrendous mistake of the past. The bigots, the uninformed and the fearful among us are the antithesis of such dreams and aspirations, having forgotten their own foreign roots and their elementary lessons in civics. Just what is it they think we are fighting to preserve?

By Stanley I. Kutler

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Abu Ghraib Guantanamo