There are few people still living who can claim Kazu Iijima and Minn Matsuda’s perspective on post-September 11 America. Friends for over six decades, they were adults in California when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Iijima was one of 120,000 adults and children of Japanese ancestry—including 77,000 U.S. citizens and almost every person of Japanese descent on the West Coast—imprisoned by the U.S. government without charge or trial in 10 remote barbed-wire internment camps between March 1942 and March 1946. Matsuda, who moved inland before the roundup, was among a small minority left outside.
Last September, Matsuda saw the second jet hit the trade center from her ninth-floor terrace in Fort Greene. She watched through the morning, periodically ducking back into the apartment to relieve her 91-year-old heart. Uptown on 190th Street, Iijima was also stunned, viewing the news footage and listening to the analogies to Pearl Harbor, an event she had learned of 60 years earlier during Sunday brunch at home with her sisters.
Then a recent college graduate who worked as a maid because few would give Japanese Americans a better job, Iijima was ordered in March 1942 to show up at a temporary holding center with only the belongings she could carry. President Franklin Roosevelt, caving to political pressure, had issued an executive order giving the military clearance to evacuate Japanese Americans from the West Coast. With friends who slept over the night before so they could go together, Iijima arrived at a hastily converted racetrack in Oakland, where she spent several months under armed watch. She ate amid horse waste, slept on a dirt floor, and waited to take “this horrible train ride where we had to pull the shades down so people couldn’t see us and throw stones.”
The train took her to Utah’s Topaz Camp, “a poetic name for a bleak desert.” A year of her life disappeared in the crowded, dusty barracks teeming with 10,000 others. (She married an army man and got out sooner than most.) Matsuda, who had moved to Salt Lake City when California became “too uncomfortable,” spent the internment years writing to Iijima and struggling to work despite racial prejudice. She managed to keep her job sketching ads for a retail store, even after a wealthy patron demanded, “I want that Jap removed.”
So it was something when the women heard that a Bush appointee had likened popular opinion now to the sentiment leading up to internment back then, and they agreed.
Two weeks ago, Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission drew heat by suggesting that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil could stir public support for mass, ethnicity-based internments as during World War II. He did not advocate such detentions—in fact, he told the Voice that he was absolutely opposed. But he did say at a July 19 public hearing in Detroit packed with Muslim American advocates, “If there’s another terrorist attack and if it’s from a certain ethnic community . . . that the terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights.”
Some civil rights groups want Kirsanow kicked off the commission. But more alarming than his remarks alone was the response—or lack of it—from the administration. The White House issued a single sentence professing its faith in Kirsanow’s best intentions, but it did not take a stand against internment. In fact, when asked point-blank about the possibility, the White House referred the Voice to the Justice Department, where a spokesperson responded, “Everything has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.” She declined to renounce the notion completely.
Kirsanow later told the Detroit Free Press, “Not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling.” He suggested there would be “a groundswell of public opinion” as in the days of Korematsu v. U.S., the 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld the race-based internment of U.S. citizens in the interest of national security. (Kirsanow’s point: Quit complaining about liberties violations in the president’s homeland security agenda, for it could avert a future attack and racist backlash.)
Iijima and Matsuda remember those days well. Japanese American internment was not, they say, a sudden, inconceivable horror, but rather the extreme expression of a wider political climate. The Pearl Harbor bombing set off long-standing anti-immigrant tensions, leading non-Japanese residents and California politicians in the 1942 election year to demand the imprisonment of the Japanese. Over 2000 Japanese men, along with some Italians and Germans, were secretly detained in the months prior to mass internment. Roosevelt’s February 19, 1942, executive order permitted the designation of “military areas,” enabling the military to begin the wider Japanese American roundup.
“We had some non-Japanese friends who were supportive. But the majority of people we knew were intent on putting us in internment camps, because they thought we were spies,” says Iijima. She recalls the newspaper editorials and movies that inflamed suspicion of “Japs,” and a daily life filled with slurs, surveillance, and sometimes violence against her community. “Internment was accepted by a majority of the people, or it couldn’t have happened,” she says. Adds Matsuda, “It could very easily happen again.”
A 1980s congressional investigation—hard-won by Asian American activists—revealed not a single act of espionage or sabotage by a Japanese descendant on U.S. soil. Congress, including members like Newt Gingrich, approved legislation granting an official apology and reparations of $20,000 per survivor, and President George Bush Sr. agreed.
But as scholarly accounts have noted, the legislative process was largely a backroom victory in which members agreed to vote their conscience because of the relative obscurity of the issue. There was no nationwide awakening in which Americans everywhere were forced to reckon with their history. And the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 sought to “discourage” a future internment, but it did not outright forbid a repeat.
The act has done little to protect Middle Easterners in the U.S. today, Iijima believes. “The prejudice against immigrants is very, very high,” she says, accurately observing that “actual [hate] murders have occurred” since September 11. (The Justice Department reported a surge in hate incidents following the terrorist attacks, and the D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations alone had tallied over 1700 as of February.)
But would the American public tolerate another such massive, ethnic crackdown in the event of another attack? It could be argued there is more incentive today: The plane hijackings, unlike the Pearl Harbor bombing, involved individuals living in the U.S.
Only one publicly released poll has asked directly. Conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press over the weekend immediately following September 11, it might provide a reasonable measure of gut reaction in case of future attacks, says research director Michael Dimock.
Twelve hundred adults nationwide were asked, “Would you favor or oppose the following measures to curb terrorism. . . . Allowing the U.S. government to take legal immigrants from unfriendly countries to internment camps during times of tension or crisis.” Twenty-nine percent of respondents were in favor, and 57 percent were not. Says Dimock, “A clear majority were opposed. But I know people who looked at that number and went, ‘Oh my god, nearly three in 10 people are in favor of this?'” Moreover, he says, “a higher proportion said, ‘don’t know,’ or refused to answer this than the other questions. There may be some people in their heart of hearts who support the idea and don’t say so over the phone. I’m sure that it did happen.”
Yet, says John Stauber of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, “public opinion is very malleable.” It can be quelled or—especially by political parties in an election year with a battered economy—ignited. “The administration has consistently been warning the American people to watch out for further terrorist attacks. There are all sorts of examples—Reagan and the Grenada invasion—where some sort of swift action by the president involving military response to a perceived threat galvanizes public support [for the party].”
There has been plenty of action already to remind Iijima and Matsuda and others with long memories of a dark past: Dozens of terror alerts from the Justice Department. Repeated calls from leaders for ordinary Americans to watch their neighbors. Anti-Muslim bias incidents, including job firings and beatings. Explorations of ways around a domestic martial law ban. Indefinite captivity without trials for at least two U.S. citizens. Secret detentions of at least 750, if not hundreds more, Arabs and South Asians. Their court hearings are closed, leaving the public and press with no way of knowing whether the hearings have been lawful or have happened at all.
Three federal judges have said the Justice Department is violating detainees’ due process rights. Not only civil libertarians and Muslim American advocates, but also congressional conservatives like Orrin Hatch have suggested the administration has gone too far. Republican Arlen Specter last Thursday told Ashcroft at a Senate committee hearing he was troubled by the detention of noncitizens on minor visa violations.
To Matsuda, today’s political climate is even “more dangerous” than in the months leading up to World War II internment. “In those days, we had so-called liberals in power,” she says. Ashcroft’s counterpart at the time, along with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, opposed internment. “But today, we have a very different setup which is more ominous,” says Matsuda.
Speculating about another attack and its political aftermath seems in very poor taste—the indelicacy is part of why Bush appointee Kirsanow has been so harshly criticized. But refusing to consider the worst possible scenario now could permit a day when it is too late. The diversity of nationalities linked to today’s terrorism might complicate a massive roundup, but it could also excuse an extremely wide net. And the Bush-Ashcroft team’s penchant for operating in secrecy, along with a vast prison capacity that did not exist during World War II, might allow for such detainments to happen even before most Americans knew it.
But once they found out, what would they do? Two Americans know for sure: Iijima and Matsuda would protest to the end. The experiences of their youth galvanized them over the decades to help start the Asian American rights movement, support black activists, and oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam. Since September 11, though hampered a bit by age, they have thrown down with local Arabs and South Asians. Says Iijima, “We work so it won’t happen again.”