Day of Remembrance: Today, 79 Years Ago
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced relocation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to concentration camps. Now, 79 years later, the tendency to imagine hostile enemies within our own nation has not changed.
In response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 authorized the military to forcibly evacuate all persons deemed a threat to national security. This is how some 120,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were stripped of their property and assets to live for four years in the deserts further inland.
Not a single Japanese American was charged of espionage or sabotage against the United States.
Roosevelt, in signing the Executive Order, declared that the U.S. would employ “the great arsenal of democracy” by stripping its own citizens of freedom, dignity, and constitutional rights. White Americans who were considered safer, righteous citizens were emboldened to show a “spirit of patriotism and sacrifice” by supporting this effort. Thus was the creation of an enemy within our own nation, and the justification of violence against one group in order to unify the nation in its temporary definition of America.
We see this rhetoric unfold repeatedly throughout history, up to the present day. When our former president said, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness; you have to show strength,” the term “our country” was meant for a specific group of people with specific values and ideas of patriotism. “Our country” does not belong to everyone, and it has been under threat.
Dead on the Stairs
About a month ago I listened to a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting, exploring the violent transfer of power in Washington D.C. Arianna Evans, a D.C. native and political activist described how her relationship with the city changed upon recognizing how she was targeted as a Black American.
“I feel like I spent my whole life marveling at the beauty of [Washington D.C.] until I started protesting in it,” reflected Evans, “My politics completely changed over the past eight months because I really saw what this country thinks of me.”
She contrasted her experience of being physically assaulted as a peaceful protestor to the experience of those who insurrected the capital. “We would have been dead on the stairs,” she said, “I couldn’t help but think about the time that I was leaving a protest, and I got arrested by five police officers, and I had done nothing wrong, and they all kneeled on my back, and bruised my ribs. But yet all of those white people left. They went home. We don’t get that luxury.”
Who we are
At the risk of sounding extreme, I argue that every attempt to build a better nation by creating enemies amongst ourselves has been a mistake. This mistake is never obvious, however, because we consistently erase history in pursuit of an image of America as a “melting pot.” We would like to believe that we are a nation of cultural and religious freedom, of liberty, equality, and justice. We want to believe that upholding these principals is what makes us uniquely “American,” that there is such thing as an “American dream,” and that anyone can realize it. However, we are not our thoughts, or our intentions; we are our actions, our behavior, and our history. Our history has proven that the ‘blessings of liberty’ have been secured for a few at the cost of too many.
I never thought I would quote George W. Bush, but alas, here we are:
“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.”
I remain optimistic that the United States, after confronting centuries of thriving off the exploitation of racism and poverty, will eventually live up to its own constitutional principles. “We the people,” depends on inclusion, and we are just not there yet.
On this Day of Remembrance, I am recalling our nation’s embarrassing history-turned-tradition of falsely creating enemies in order to attempt unity. It feels somewhat like naming a mental illness, or a personality disorder, a spectrum of short-sightedness and violence that America is certainly on. Then, perhaps, we can start to heal. Ironically, in examining this shameful past, I am feeling more patriotic than ever.