I was an english major in college, and yes, I read Jane Austen. (In fact, I wrote my senior project on Jane Austen). But when I left school the first genre I really dived in to was history. I’d always had a thing for learning about history, so much so that I deeply regret not getting a second major in it. I’m not sure how, but Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day” ended up in my possession, and I devoured it in two days. What sealed the deal for me with history is the morning I took my book to work to read on my lunch hour. My boss Dave noticed it and casually said, “Did you know George was a paratrooper at D-Day?” George. George “the tea guy”, my salesman from Murchies, who came in every two weeks to make sure I had enough product, place orders, etc. He was quiet and reserved and your standard middle aged, slightly paunchy white guy. The next time he came in I nervously asked, “So George, Dave said you were a paratrooper at D-Day?” Yes, he replied. Then I blurted out, “Why the hell would you want to jump out of an airplane?” “It seemed like a good idea at the time” was his oh-so-George reply.
And with that I was hooked. Just the idea that the everyday people we run in to were a part of some of these moments in history, and you might never know what they’ve seen or how they played their part. At that same store I met a Vietnam veteran who flew helicopters, and despite the average one month life expectancy of huey pilots managed to come home, only to get in, you guessed it, a crash and lose partial mobility in his legs. At another place I worked we had a group of customers, old cranky-as-all-hell Russian women, who you made damn sure not to get on the wrong side of. I cringed every time I saw them, until the day I realized, suddenly, that given their age they lived under Stalin. They survived Stalin. And from that moment on I had nothing but utter respect bordering on reverence.
In 1988 I was in college, and I wasn’t exactly the Cancun for spring break kind of girl. In fact, I rarely did anything for spring break besides go home and read for a week. But my mother bought me tickets to go to Washington D.C. and visit a friend, and it was my first time there. I was lucky enough to get to visit the Smithsonian when they had the exhibit “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution.” My companion for the day was T, and her family had been interned. It was my first real exposure to what the internment detailed, and I soaked it all in. More than that, I watched. I watched T’s face at each display. I watched her try to put herself in their place, try to absorb the enormity of it, try to understand it. On a whole, it is outside of understanding. It was, and is, a symbol of the worst we do when we are afraid and when we allow our fear to dictate policy.
75 years ago today President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which moved all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, into military controlled government camps. It was an order born out of fear, and was so blatantly a violation of the constitution and a suspension of rights that it will be studied by constitutional lawyers in perpetuity. We think that we’ve learned from the past, but when push comes to shove, when we are afraid, we repeat the same mistakes, over and over. It’s no surprise that among the hundreds of thousands marching on January 21st at the women’s marches held all over the world and in the spontaneous protests held after the recent executive order prohibiting immigration from specific Muslim countries were men and women who were interned at Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, and Rohwer.
We still have people around us who lived this history, who know how it started, who perhaps hoped and prayed that it “wouldn’t come to this.” But it did. It’s time to respect the history they lived and their experiences and do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen again. That’s not going to happen with hoping, it’s going to happen with speaking up. It’s going to happen with the word no. It’s going to happen with standing up for what makes this country unique – our Constitution and the rights we are afforded by it. The best way to honor those Japanese-American who endured internment is to protect the next group that is unfairly targeted simply because of their “other-ness”.