When I was in 8th grade, a newly hired teacher came into our classroom after lunch one day and announced that a parent had seen a student throwing rocks at passing cars. The parent wasn’t sure who the student was, so had simply given a description when reporting the matter to the principal.
Someone was in trouble. It just wasn’t clear who.
To deal with the matter, the teacher pulled all the kids fitting the description out of class and sent them to the principal’s office. The students were to remain there until further notice.
To all of us kids, it was clear that this plan was foolish. How would detaining an essentially random group of students really help anything? How did it make any sense to hold a whole group responsible for the actions of one unknown assailant? And furthermore, it was grossly unfair – why punish innocent students for simply looking like someone who misbehaved?
As it turns out, the whole thing was an elaborate set up introducing Japanese internment in the United States.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fear of people of Japanese ancestry mounted. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, testified as much to Congress in 1943, saying:
I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now – if they are permitted to come back – espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. … But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.’
Ultimately, between 1942 and 1946, 120,000 people were forced to relocate to U.S. internment camps “as a result of the military evacuation of the West Coast.” Some 62 percent of those detained were American citizens.
It was a dark chapter in our nation’s history. A moment whose only saving grace was the indelible stain left by these camps, pockmarked across the west. Haunting testaments to the nation we should never let ourselves become again.
I’d like to think that we have all learned something from those darker days. Learned to love our neighbors and to not let fear drive us towards hate. I’d like to think that’d we’ve learned that all people truly are created equal, and are all equally endowed with our most sacred inalienable rights; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.