Immigrant Panics, then and now.

Liliuokalani Garden Torii - Bay BackgroundThere’s not all that much to add to George Takei’s devastating response to Roanoke Mayor David Bowen’s attempt to rationalize refusing Syrian refugees by citing the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.

I’ve written about the internment before, and my conclusion thirteen years ago stands up reasonably well:

What is the lesson of this history? Jumping to conclusions about individuals or groups based on limited information is dumb. If we violate our own principles, we will regret it. We can admit mistakes, and learn from them. Apology doesn’t make things right, but it can make things better. Our success in destroying evil in WWII is tarnished more by denying or ignoring the full range of history than it is by admitting errors and making amends. But that success is only fully realized when we make a commitment not to make the same, or similar, mistakes again.

Around that time, shortly after the September 11th attacks and the anti-Arab panics that engendered, a book came out defending the internment as a necessary tactical and intelligence-based decision. Though roundly debunked by knowledgeable historians and justifiably ignored by most professional historians and decent people, the argument made therein has clearly become part of a particular mythology of American exceptionalism. This is, I think, part and parcel with the arguments sometimes made in defense of slavery, or Native American removal: “yes, it looks like an atrocity now, but in context, it was a kindness; we’ve apologized once, now let’s figure out what the benefits were for everyone, including the victims; people who did this were just products of their time, and nice to children and puppies; etc.” (paraphrased). Now the author of the aforementioned book claimed that she didn’t intend to specifically justify internment of Americans or immigrants of Arab descent or Muslim faith, but nobody really believed her.

The United States isn’t the only society that tries to perpetuate a sanitized and self-serving history, but this is an historical episode about which we had actually achieved some clarity: seeing the mythical justified version of this come back into the public discourse is really disheartening.

Updated: David Neiwert, who wrote a book on the subject and was a leading critic of rehabilitation for internment, has a nicely detailed response and the entire Roanoke city council has responded strongly and negatively to the (outgoing) mayor’s statement.

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