In the dark days after the bombings of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the authorities came to visit my great-grandfather. Having classified him as a "dangerous enemy alien" he was arrested on Jan. 3, 1942. My great-grandfather had a Buick with a short wave band radio. The FBI alleged that since he had a radio in his car, he was monitoring radio signals from Japanese ships off the coast who were giving him orders. His arrest occurred despite the fact that he had worked and lived in the United States for over 40 years, working on the railroads, as a farm laborer, and later in hotels in Los Angeles. Five days after classifying him as a "dangerous enemy alien" and arresting him, the FBI sent him to Los Angeles County Jail for holding. Seven days later, he was sent to the Tuna Canyon Detention Camp in Tujunga, and on Feb. 8, they sent him to the Fort Missoula Department of Justice internment camp in Montana, along with 2,000 other Japanese "suspects."
Six months later, thanks to the intervention of a family friend's lawyer, he was transferred from Fort Missoula, and rejoined our family in the Santa Anita Temporary Relocation Center, where his wife had been incarcerated since May 7. By Oct. 10, 1942, the family was eventually transferred to the Rohwer, Arkansas Concentration Camp to join the other 120,000 internees of Japanese descent. He had been charged with no crimes, had faced no jury or trial, and spent a full four years behind barbed wire before being released with the closing of the camps. For him, whatever vindication the 1988 Civil Liberties Act could have given him came too late, as he died before he could receive either an apology or redress for his incarceration. Now, 60 years later, it's hard to believe my eyes and ears, when I read or hear the news that over 1,200 South Asian, Middle Eastern and Muslim people have been arrested since the Sept. 11 tragedy, and that many are still being detained without charges, more than three months after the attacks.
The Constitution guarantees protection against "unreasonable search and seizure," and ensures "due process of law," the right to a "speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury." It guarantees a man the right to "be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." But these policies that form the bedrock of our democratic process have gone out the window. As of this date we don't even know the names of the arrestees, what they are being charged with, where they are being held, and whether they have been provided with legal representation. Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that he does not want to release the names of the incarcerated for their protection, because he does not want to "create a public blacklist for detainees that would violate their rights." Ironically, similarly baseless and insulting arguments were used in World War II, to justify the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans: namely, that they were put in prisons for their own protection.
Most of the current detainees are being held on allegations that have nothing to do with the Sept. 11 incidents. The majority are dealing with circumstantial evidence, basic immigration issues, or other minor violations of the law. In many ways, the arrests represent an attempt by federal and law enforcement officials to show that they are doing something in the face of their clear failure to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Yet, innocent lives are being affected in their drive to produce results. Recently, one of the people incarcerated, a 55-year-old Pakistani man, died of a heart attack in a New Jersey jail. According to the Los Angeles Times, Pakistani newspapers have "estimated that 200 Pakistanis remain unaccounted for in New York City alone." Ashcroft has opened up the sweeps to call for the interrogation of 5,000 more individuals of South Asian, Middle Eastern, or Muslim descent, and has called on local law enforcement to enforce these sweeps.
Today, 60 years after the internment of Japanese Americans in the camps, it seems that people cannot remember that we, as Americans, can be both victims and victimizers. Clearly, the Sept. 11 attacks were a horrific injustice that our nation must deal with, sometimes with drastic measures. Yet before we add insult to injury, let us remember that what is happening to some communities bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese Internment. When there is a grave injustice, that we must speak out against it. We must remember that "we, the people," who are committed to freedom, democracy, and justice, must never allow what happened to the Japanese American community to happen to anyone else again.