It was until my freshman year in college that I read the book “Farewell to Manzanar” – the true account of a Japanese-American family’s struggle as prisoners in a U.S. internment camp during WW II. That book, authored by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston , was forever seared into my memory for it proved that any government, no matter how democratic or well meaning, is possible of acting unjustly. And though WW II and the order to intern over 70,000 Japanese-American citizens seem like far-away history, the same capacity for unjust action is being revisited on Americans today.
This time those of Middle Eastern origin are being treated unjustly by a Justice Department intent on anti-terrorist legislation. Unless we reconsider the lessons of the past, the present may yet see such tragic legislation as Executive Order 9066 which sent thousands of Japanese-Americans to dusty and forlorn internment camps in the American West during World War II.
However, it seems history’s lesson has gone unlearned, as outrage and dissent have not been widespread. Time will tell. That is why a read, or a re-read, of “Manzanar” seems so urgent�especially in the light of new anti-terrorist legislation. The recent example set by the Justice Department in its detention of 1,200 citizens and immigrants of Middle Eastern descent for questioning about possible terrorist activity is telling. It’s telling because some of those detainees have not been charged, some have been detained for as much as 67 days (for adding an extra layer of laminate to their official documentation in one case), and many have still not been publicly identified by the government.
Worse, still, is U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s insistence that roughly 5,000 Middle Easterners who entered the U.S recently must submit to “voluntary interviewing.” Never mind that such a concept runs contrary to local laws, such as those that exist in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. In both cities law enforcement officials have refused to conduct the interviews citing an invasion of privacy. The refusal has not seen much press even though it is one of the first stands against the newly kindled drive to erode civil liberties. Could it be they refused because officials in both cities see the “voluntary interviews” for what they are? Let’s just say that somewhere George Orwell is wishing he could come up with the moniker “voluntary interview.”
Federal authorities have sidestepped the issue altogether by conducting the interviews themselves, but the injustice remains. And the potential for more legislation continues.
Think of how “un-American” the concept of “expanded secret search and seizure” sounds. Would that sentence be more fitting of the East German police apparatus than the Justice department? Think again, because it is one of the powers being sought by the department along with permitting the surveillance of an individual’s e-mails and voice mails without a court order. This does not even deal with such assaults on the Constitution as the President’s authorization of military tribunals, which William Safire termed as “what amounts to dictatorial power to jail or execute aliens” in the New York Times. Such power is vested in Congress and not the President.
To look to where the future of such powers can go one needs only to look to the past. If a book can be a document by which future generations can judge their own actions then “Farewell to Manazanar” bears a read at the Justice Department. It’s safe to say that anyone who reads it will find today’s anti-terrorist legislation more than slightly chilling.