The experience of the Japanese islanders of San Piedro shows how fear turned a nation against an ethnic group. They were overtly loyal to America and denounced the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941. Even as they are rounded up and dispatched inland young Japanese men join the American army to fight and die for the United States. Their loyalty and sacrifice did not end the internment.
The internment of the Japanese because of fear not fact cannot help but resonate in our world today when it is Muslims who are feared because of the war against the terrorism of ISIS and Al Qaeda. In the rhetoric of Donald Trump it is easy to see the echoes of the hysteria that swept North America in 1942.
A few weeks ago Khizr and Ghazala Khan stood before America to honour their son, Humayun, and rebuke Trump for his lack of respect for the American Constitution. The defining moment of the American presidential campaign has been Khizr’s declaration that Trump “had sacrificed nothing and no one”.
Will it be different for the Muslims of America and Canada from what the Japanese experienced during World War II? I would not be surprised if there is a tweet tomorrow or next week of Trump speaking in favour of internment for Muslims.
In Canada there is no campaign to isolate Canadian Muslims. Our federal election last year, while fiercely partisan, never approached the verbal excesses of America’s current election.
In Snow Falling on Cedars the reader sees the Japanese as persons not abstract beings. The boys form the majority of players on the high school baseball team. The teenage Hatsue dresses in “pleated skirt, argyle sweater, white bobby socks folded down crisply above the polished onyx buckles of her shoes”. Their parents work long hours to establish farms and businesses. They are living out the American dream.
The fears of the Japanese never attach to any actions of sabotage or espionage. Japanese farmers are arrested because they have dynamite for tree stumps and “clearing the land”. There is no problem for white farmers to have dynamite.
There were island residents in Snow Falling on Cedars who saw the Japanese of the island as loyal. There were more islanders who, even though there was no evidence that their neighbours were a danger, distrusted them and were glad to see them interned.
Khizr and Ghazala provided a human face for the loyal Muslims of the United States.
I am sure there are dangerous Muslims in North America. In 2015 and 2016 there have been individual acts of terror or radicalization of small groups in Canada and the United States but there is no evidence of large conspiracies among Canadian and American Muslims.
My personal experience with the consequences of fear came from representing hemophiliacs with AIDS in the early 1990’s. It was a time of widespread fear of AIDS. Most of my clients concealed they were infected. They feared they would be ostracized. When our office launched a court action for 11 of them we obtained a court order that the plaintiffs be described by non-identifying initials. It was the first time in Saskatchewan a civil action had proceeded with the identities of the plaintiffs concealed.
Even in death some of my clients kept secret they had died from one of the complications of AIDS. I became uncomfortable at one funeral that I would cause a family distress if mourners realized the only reason I would be there was because the deceased was a client with AIDS.
Even though it had been known since the mid-1980’s that AIDS was not transmitted by mere association with the infected and that contact such as a hug was not dangerous it took until well into the 1990’s for the fear of the infected to decline.
In the summer of 2016 I see growing fear of Muslims in North America comparable to what happened to the Japanese during World War II. Will fear destroy rationality again? Is the example of the Khan family as patriotic Americans enough to challenge that fear?
****Guterson, David - (2016) - Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) and Life in Meskanaw and on San Piedro Island