As I mentioned the other day, we did a day excursion last week to Manzanar, one of about a dozen Japanese internment camps which were open during World War II. Manzanar is near the town of Lone Pine, California, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. There’s a guard tower and some reconstructed barracks which are supposed to resemble the ones present in the 1940s. There is also a plaque describing the site, which, quite uncharacteristically for the National Park Service, describes internment clearly as a mistake and a demonstration of inhumanity. Because of this, the plaque has been cut with knives and shot multiple times, and another plaque has been posted on the private land directly behind it affirming the courage of American soldiers.
Seeing the site reminded me quite a bit of my visit to a slave fort in Cape Coast, Ghana. There, thousands of captive Africans waited packed like cattle in tiny, dark and filthy rooms, until they boarded a ship for a journey across the Atlantic which one-third of them would not survive. Japanese internment isn’t quite as unfathomable in its scale and inhumanity, but it still brought tears to my eyes to think about the things we’ve done to fellow people during the worst moments of our history. I read several pages of the visitor’s log, and there were several entries which said something like, “This is my first visit to Manzanar since I was released in 1945.” What really got to me was the exhibit about Japanese soldiers during World War II, including one man who dove on top of grenade to prevent it from killing his entire squad. He was killed and awarded a medal for valor, while his mother and the rest of his family was locked up in Manzanar.
I realized, walking around there, that so much of our history involves fencing away things we don’t like. The West especially has been defined and controlled by fences. Systematically murder Native Americans, then fence the once who survive in reservations. Dam rivers, fence them into reservoirs, so Los Angeles and Las Vegas can continue to grow. Put Japanese people in camps during the war because they might hurt the war effort. Anything contrary to growth, Manifest Destiny, war, America or God, we put inside a neat little fence and forget about. And now, it’s gotten to the point where we fence off the things we want to preserve. Fence the stream so cattle can’t trample the willow and aspen. Fence off the vegetation so it can keep growing undisturbed. Fence off Yellowstone and Yosemite to assuage our guilt as we mine uranium and clear cut forests everywhere else on our public lands.
I hope that we can take a lesson from history and never do this again, but our reactions to 9/11 suggest otherwise. Still, I hope next time we’re confronted with a crisis of national security, our first reaction isn’t to deprive people of their Constitutional rights.