I know a lot of people who don’t like history. They say it’s their worst subject, or it’s boring, or there are too many dates to remember. Personally, I like history because it reminds me of how we repeat the same mistakes over and over. This is both good and bad. Bad, because we’re still making the same stupid mistakes over and over, but good because at least I know the most likely outcome. I think about this whenever I see or hear of the way Muslims are mistreated in this country.
In 1941, America suffered a terrorist attack when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The horror of the surprise attack and the deaths of so many people naturally caused shock and outrage that overwhelmed the nation. It would become the catalyst that made the U.S. enter World War II, which had already been going on for about two years without us. Here on the home front, however, another war was being waged against its own citizens. Namely, those of Japanese descent.
It didn’t matter that some of these people were second or third generation American citizens and didn’t even speak Japanese. They looked like “them.” They came from “there.” They had to be terrorists. Or at least, we weren’t willing to take the chance that they might be innocent American citizens. So, they were rounded up and put into “internment camps,” which is just a nicer way of saying “prison.” They lost their homes, their businesses and most of their possessions.
How did these wronged citizens react? They enlisted. According to the Japanese American National Museum, 2,300 men signed up for military service while they were living in these prison camps. By the end of the war, more than 6,000 Japanese Americans had served, mostly in the Pacific theater, acting as interpreters, translating documents and interrogating prisoners. These men fought and died defending a country that had betrayed them.
In 2001, America suffered another terrorist attack. You know the one. This one occurred within your living memory instead of back in the ye old days of your grandparents or great-grandparents. This time, the terrorists in question were Muslims, and so the American public has turned in fear and anger to the people among us who “look like them.”
I am not the only one who has made the connection between Japanese American bigotry in the 1940s and Muslim bigotry post-9/11. A lot of Japanese American citizens have been watching the goings-on with a sickening feeling of familiarity. California Representative Michael Honda wrote an opinion column for CNN, published June 15, 2011, that eloquently compares the two.
While we have not created nice little camps to hide these people away in, we have not made their lives any easier. They face discrimination at work and school for the way they dress. When they want to build a mosque to peacefully worship, the rest of the community pitches a fit. They are the targets of vandalism, violence and arson.
And yet, Muslims in this country are no less patriotic than any other American. As of 2009, there were more than 3,400 Muslims serving in the U.S. military, according to Pentagon statistics. And the numbers are probably higher than that, because soldiers are not required to disclose their religious preference. These are Muslims who fight for our freedom and our country while we spit at them and deface their mosques.
I don’t know if I could be so forgiving if I were so harshly targeted, but I am white and agnostic and, therefore, just about the safest demographic in this country. I don’t have a dress code, or wear any religious icons to identify myself as belonging to any group or another. No matter how many Timothy McVeighs or James Holmes this country spawns, nobody is going to eyeball me when I walk down the street and think I’m a terrorist because of my skin color, or because of my religion. At least, not in this country.
All I can do is try to have the courage to speak up and speak out when I see injustice being done. All I can do is try to lead by example, and hope that my flaws and shortcomings do not undermine the good I intend. This is why I tell everybody I know: History matters because it’s happening right now. You need to know it when you see it, because it will happen again. And maybe, just maybe, we can nip it in the bud and stop it the next time around before it gets out of control.
Maybe. Probably not. But at least I know that this madness will eventually pass and we will feel ashamed, as a country, for how we treated our own citizens. History has taught me that.
Karen Sarita Ingram is a senior in English. Please send comments to [email protected]