Sunday, June 24, 2018

Internment camps: we've been here before.

The government is now planning to house immigrant families in "temporary and austere" camps on military bases, including San Diego's Camp Pendleton.  The language is chilling.

Last year, BP and I traveled down highway 395, which winds down the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.  We visited an actual temporary and austere internment camp:  Manzanar, one of the camps used to imprison Japanese-Americans, citizens and non-citizens alike, during the second world war.  They were rounded up from their homes and businesses, which they never recovered.  The US Census provided information to help locate them. With only a few possessions in hand, they were shipped to these remote places throughout the west.

Parts of Manzanar have been rebuilt and restored, as a National Historic Site run by the Park Service, so visitors can see exactly what it was like.  It's a grim, sere place, with the cold majesty of the mountains overlooking a plain that is swept by fierce winds. It is hot and dusty in the summer, and frigid cold in the winter.

The facility was hastily built, and the residents lived in humiliating conditions.  Thrown-together buildings with thin, gapped walls.   Shared toilets in an open-roomed latrine with no privacy panels. Barbed wire and guard towers.

Our Japanese compatriots endured this vile and illegal imprisonment for years, as their sons joined the Army to form a highly-decorated unit that suffered enormous losses, to "prove" their loyalty.

In one of its darker moments, the US Supreme Court in found in Korematsu v US that the exclusion orders were justified. This is now recognized to have been "bad law" but is still relied upon today by certain actors.

An investigation was opened by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, leading to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act provided reparations for the survivors, acknowledging  that "The Congress recognizes that, as described by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership...For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation... " There was no security justification for the internments, and indeed the government was found to have lied to the Court about evidence of espionage.

The Manzanar Monument, in the cemetery at the camp, is surround by strings of faded paper cranes.  It is formally "Soul Consoling Tower" (that is the meaning of the characters in the front).  The wind whistles past it, sounding like the grieving whispers of history.

It is hard to get there, being quite distant from major centers, but that was the point:  out of sight, out of mind. The drive is worth it, though, because it's a vital part of our history.

I hope that we have not forgotten the lesson of Manzanar, but I fear otherwise.

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