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Lessons from the Japanese internment during WWII

By       Message Abdus Sattar Ghazali     Permalink
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February 19 marks the Day of Remembrance when President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that sent about 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps during the World War Two.

The mass displacement and internment of the Japanese-Americans is a dark spot of our history from which we can learn valuable lessons.

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On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which marked the beginning of institutionalized profiling and massive interment of American citizens of Japanese descent.

The justification that was proffered for such drastic action was that Japanese-Americans, who were born in this country, were suspected, without proof, of being loyal to Japan and disloyal to America. They were victims of guilt by association.

This Executive Order effectively suspended civil liberties for Japanese Americans. The order set into motion the exclusion from certain areas, and the evacuation and mass incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, most of whom were U.S. citizens or legal permanent resident aliens.

These Japanese Americans were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

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They were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs; in some cases family members were separated and put into different camps. President Roosevelt himself called the 10 facilities "concentration camps." Some Japanese Americans died in the camps due to inadequate medical care and the emotional stresses they encountered. Several were killed by military guards posted

At the time, Executive Order 9066 was justified as a "military necessity" to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage. However, it was later documented by Michi Weglyn in her book - Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps - that "our government had in its possession proof that not one Japanese American, citizen or not, had engaged in espionage, not one had committed any act of sabotage."

At the same time, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, said that the causes for this unprecedented action in American history, "were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."

Michi Weglyn argued that the injustice done to Japanese Americans "has been only partially perceived" and hoped that her account will remind Americans to be constantly on guard to protect their always vulnerable liberties.

Rev. Emery Andrews, a Baptist minister and former missionary to Japan, was right what he observed in 1943 about the internment of the Japanese Americans: "Future historians will record this evacuation -- this violation of citizenship rights -- as one of the blackest blots on American history.”

So egregious was this violation of basic civil rights that 40 years later, in 1983, the Presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians called the internment program an act of racism and wartime hysteria and in 1988 President Reagan signed a reparation agreement that officially apologized and provided each surviving camp member with $20,000 in compensation.

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While apologizing on behalf of the nation, the Congress pointed out that a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians. “The excluded individuals of Japanese ancestry suffered enormous damages, both material and intangible, and there were incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering for which appropriate compensation has not been made.”

Despite this redress, the mental and physical health impacts of the trauma of the internment experience continue to affect tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. Health studies have shown a 2 times greater incidence of heart disease and premature death among former internees, compared to non-interned Japanese Americans.

In spite of these historic lessons, today we witness members of the Arab/Muslim American community experiencing similar civil and human rights violations: institutionalized profiling, exclusion, detention and extradition in the post 9/11 and Iraq War era. More than six years after 9/11, American Muslims and Arabs remain at the receiving end.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)

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