February 19, 1942

On this day in 1942 Executive Order 9066 was issued. That is, the infamous presidential/executive order that, validated by America’s state of war, gave a president (FDR) the power to consign various ethnic groups (see: the Japanese) to internment camps. Not too coincidentally, the individuals targeted happened to be Americans belonging to the ancestry the U.S. was concurrently fighting in WW II (the aforementioned Japanese, as well as Germans and Italians). Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were spirited away to these camps. Not unlike the concentration camps, one thinks about this period in history and thinks (hopes?) it was far back in our past. Considering the 20th Century was already half-over puts it in immediate, and painful, perspective. About sixty years ago, millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Germany and tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were being forcibly sent to internment camps. Less than two generations. On good days, we look at this and say “how could it have happened?”. On other days, we look at Guantanamo and it’s difficult to feel too proud of the progress we’ve supposedly made.   

This picture has haunted me ever since I first saw it, over a decade ago.

A Japanese family, en route to an internment camp. Neither defiant nor indignant (they could not afford to be), they are quite obviously eager to illustrate their solidarity. Acquiescence. Approbation. The miniature American flags, the victory signs, the smiles. The fear behind those forced gestures. (Not forced because they were fake, but because they were obligatory; imperative as the bare minimum to ensure that the worst was not automatically assumed.) Look closely at how the father sets the tone: he understands the score. Smile, this is your life. The kids are either too old to protest (the older daughter) or too young to fake it (the son). But it’s the young girl in the middle (middle of the picture, middle child in the family) that conveys the intolerable hypocrisy and inhumanity of the situation: she is the only one without a smile on her face or a flag in her hand. She is old enough to understand, but young enough to be understandably petulant about her circumstances. No matter her age, she knows this unwilling exodus is unnatural, unacceptable. And her face (more than a million subsequent words decrying the conditions that led to this embarrassing moment in U.S. history) is able to convey the very human cost of counterproductive policies begat by hysteria.

Never again, one thinks, looking at that picture. It was unfortunate, but that was half a century ago, we’ve evolved into e-mail and instant communication across the globe, certainly we shan’t act that rashly again. Surely we’ve seen enough of this appalling history to ensure that it’s never repeated. Obviously we have made amends and are stronger, as a nation, for what we commissioned in the name of national security. Clearly we could never dive into the deep end again, indulging the uglier side of our collective sensibility. Fortunately we’ve come a long way since the dark ages of our (parents’) infancy.

Haven’t we…

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Comments

  1. yeah, we’ve evolved. now we use electronic communication to forward hysterical, fear-filled messages warning of the dangers of the muslim next door. . . or the one running for president (even when he’s not). fear is still fear, and the reaction is still exactly the same.

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