Tuesday 28 March 2017

I was held in US internment camp - so Trump's threats terrify me

People protest in Los Angeles against Donald Trump’s appointments to his incoming administration. Photo: Getty Images
People protest in Los Angeles against Donald Trump’s appointments to his incoming administration. Photo: Getty Images

George Takei

There is dangerous talk these days by those who have the ear of some at the highest levels of the US government. Earlier this week, Carl Mr Higbie, an outspoken Mr Trump surrogate and co-chair of Great America PAC, gave an interview with Megyn Kelly of Fox News. They were discussing the notion of a national Muslim registry, a controversial part of the Trump administration's national security plans, when Mr Higbie dropped a bombshell: "We did it during World War II with Japanese, which, you know, call it what you will," he said.

Was he really citing the Japanese-American internment, Mrs Kelly wanted to know, as grounds for treating Muslims the same way today? Mr Higbie responded that he wasn't saying we should return to putting people in camps. But then he added, "There is precedent for it."

Stop and consider these words. The internment was a dark chapter of American history, in which 120,000 people, including me and my family, lost our homes, our livelihoods, and our freedoms because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour. Mr Higbie speaks of the internment in the abstract, as a "precedent" or a policy, ignoring the true human tragedy that occurred.

I was just a child of five when we were forced at gunpoint from our home and sent first to live in a horse stable at a local race track, a family of five crammed into a single smelly stall. It was a devastating blow to my parents, who had worked so hard to buy a house and raise a family in Los Angeles. After several weeks, they sent us much farther away, 1,000 miles to the east by rail car. We disembarked in the fetid swamps of Arkansas at the Rohwer Relocation Centre. Really, it was a prison: Armed guards looked down upon us from sentry towers; their guns pointed inward at us; searchlights lit pathways at night. We understood. We were not to leave.

My parents did their best to make life seem normal. As a child, I very readily accepted our new circumstance and adjusted to it. As far as I was concerned, it was normal to line up to use the common latrine, or to eat wretched grub in a common mess hall. It was normal for us to share a single small barrack with no privacy. And it was normal to stand each day in our makeshift classroom, reciting the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, "With liberty and justice for all," as I looked past the US flag out the window, the barbed wire of the camp just visible behind it.

Not until I was older did I understand the irony of those words and the injustice that had been visited on so many of us. As I studied civics and government in school, I came to see the internment as an assault not only upon an entire group of Americans, but upon the US constitution itself - how its guarantees of due process and equal protection had been destroyed by forces of fear and prejudice unleashed by unscrupulous politicians.

It took decades for the United States to own up to what it had done and officially apologise for the internment, offering symbolic monetary reparations to the survivors. I donated my own cheque to the Japanese-American National Museum, whose mission, like mine, has been to help ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated. That is why these words by Mr Higbie, which ominously are representative of much of the current thinking in the incoming administration, have reopened very old and very deep wounds.

This was not the first time the Trump camp had raised the internment. When he did so before, it wasn't as the historical warning it should be, but as a precedent for what might yet come. In late 2015, during the presidential primary, Mr Trump actually went on the record with 'Time' magazine stating that he did not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment. Mr Trump hedged his response with a nod to the horror of the camps, but tellingly did not disavow them: "I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer."

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Mr Higbie similarly has kept open the spectre of the camps, in one breath stating that he does not favour the idea, but in the very next noting, "We have to protect America first." Indeed, in a follow-up interview with the 'New York Times', Mr Higbie doubled down on the unthinkable: "There is historical, factual precedent to do things [that] are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security."

Let us all be clear: "National security" must never again be permitted to justify wholesale denial of constitutional rights.

Let us also agree that ethnic or religious discrimination cannot be justified by calls for greater security. During World War II, the US government argued that military authorities could not distinguish between alleged enemy elements and peaceful, patriotic Japanese-Americans. It concluded, therefore, that all those of Japanese descent, including US citizens, should be presumed guilty and held without charge, trial or legal recourse, in many cases for years.

The very same arguments echo today, on the assumption that a handful of presumed radical elements within the Muslim community necessitates draconian measures against the whole, all in the name of national security.

It begins with profiling and with registries, but as Mr Trump and Mr Higbie have made clear, once the safety of the country is at stake, all safeguards are off. In their world, national security justifies "sometimes not right" actions and no one knows where it will end.

We cannot permit this invidious thinking, discredited by history at the cost of so much misery and suffering by innocents, to take root once again in America, let alone in the White House. The stigmatisation, separation and labelling of our fellow humans based on race or religion has never led to a more secure world. But it has too often led to one where the most vulnerable pay the highest price.

The US constitution and the government exist in large measure to protect against the excesses of democracies. This is particularly salient when, in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust, one group is singled out and vilified, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II and as Muslim-Americans are today. How terrible it is to contemplate, once again, that the government itself might once more be the very instrument of terror and division.

That cannot happen again. We cannot allow it. (© Washington Post)

George Takei is an actor, activist and social media maven

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