The recent attacks in Beirut and especially Paris are all over the news as I write. Plenty of right-wingnuts are screaming about expelling or imprisoning Muslims in Western countries. And an equal crowd is preaching universal peace.
I live in a big city, and I’m plenty freaked out by this kind of thing. I’m also guilty of looking with suspicion on people who don’t look like me, especially if they’re wearing a chador or niqab and I start imagining what those could be hiding. I try not to act based on these thoughts, but there’s no killing the basic instinct of prejudice.
This week I saw Allegiance, the new Broadway show about a Japanese-American family forcibly moved from their California farm to Wyoming’s Heart Mountain prison camp in 1942. George Takei, its grandpa and guiding spirit, was thus interned as a child and has widely stated that the show is his ‘never again’ project.
Allegiance is the kind of theater I enjoy – highly dramatic music, historical setting, involves Lea Salonga. Plus it’s just exciting to see this stunningly talented cast of almost all Asian/Asian-American performers get leads. And what Internet denizen doesn’t love Uncle George Takei?
During intermission I chatted with the chap next to me, who seemed well-read but not especially acquainted with the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. “So we imprisoned like 120,000 people because they resembled the folks who bombed Pearl Harbor,” he mused, “and they were all actually innocent?”
“There was no justification for the Roosevelt administration’s actions,” I responded firmly. “But, um, no, they weren’t all innocent.”
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on the U.S. in WWII. But I have read everything about the redoubtable Louis Zamperini, who tells unforgettably of a Japanese-American dude he hung out with in college, an accentless man who loved mom and apple pie…and then turned up in Japan as an interrogator for the Imperial secret police.
Of course there were a few spies among all the people of Japanese descent in America in 1942. And of course there are Americans now with violent extremist loyalties, and some of them are Muslims.
I don’t have a prescription here, except to say that we tried interning folks, and that sucked, so let’s not do it again. I’m not so much arguing the politics as asking for more nuance.
The Japanese-American internment was, in some ways, the result of laziness. They’ve got slanty eyes; stick ‘em over there. Don’t bother trying to sift out those who are actually guilty. They all look the same. I sympathize with that instinct. I feel it on the subway looking at someone in a chador.
It’s not impossible to locate the specific terrorists in a group. Glance, if you can stomach it, at the evil man who murdered nine black people in Charleston last June. His hair is the color of mine. He could be my brother. Yet he’s in jail, and I’m not. When the authorities bother—often, when the perp is white—it can be clear who’s a terrorist and who isn’t. And let’s be damn sure that when the clearly guilty are found, we throw the motherfucking book at them.
I almost retweeted this beautiful quote a few hours ago. And then I went, wait, duh, of course terrorism has to do with religion. I’ll accept that it has more to do with power and control than with religion. And there are vast tracts of religion that condemn terrorism or are irrelevant to it. But then a lot of religion is all about power and control, with or without explosives.
Furthermore, the world is not divided neatly into the innocent and the guilty. Nearly all people, nearly all the time, think they’re doing the right thing. Nobody is Bad Horse or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, reveling in ‘despicable me.’ That doesn’t excuse their actions. Massive suffering was and is caused by the Pearl Harbor attack, the internment of Japanese-Americans, most of what’s going on in Syria right now, the Paris bombings and shootings. Anger, sorrow, vengefulness, compassion: these are all boiling together.
Frankly, from my very Western, white, middle-class perspective, I don’t understand the kind of belief that spurs murder. I don’t comprehend how Zamperini’s interrogator, anybody in ISIS, or any American-based terrorist believes s/he’s doing the right thing. But I’m certain most of them do. They deserve both condemnation and context.
Human motivation is complicated. Human suffering is complicated. Anyone who claims to have simple answers is either stupid or lying (or both, especially in election season). It’s a challenge to remember this in a time of fear. We’re no more emotionally mature than the national ancestors who interned their neighbors, after all.
I turn a lot to my favorite quote from Fred Rogers, which I’ve also seen making the rounds on social media today.
Allegiance has one major character who’s not Japanese-American, a pretty and conventional blonde Midwestern nurse overwhelmed as a caregiver for the thousands of internees. She tries to stick to the rulebook, then starts slipping restricted medications to the families that need it most. Her instinct to help overcomes her instinct for self-preservation. Last night word got around that Parisians were practicing portes ouvertes, opening their doors to people— of whatever color—who couldn’t get safely to their own homes.
Here’s an Allegiance song whose lyrics are somewhat improved in the Broadway version, but this gets the idea across: gaman, a Japanese word meaning patience, with, it seems, an overlay of endurance and solidarity.
For better or worse/whether blessed or cursed/together we’ll ever remain.