Internment. I suspect I know this word longer than people my age born here. One winter morning almost 30 years ago my family TV set flatly refused to play the usual portion of Sunday cartoons and was showing somber people inexplicably wearing uniforms.
The night before more than a thousand people all over Poland were detained and placed in isolation sites. Phones were disconnected. Curfew was imposed. Tanks appeared on streets. And I found out what internment meant. So when I walk around the place which had been an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II it's not some kind of abstract history lesson for me. Still, I have a strong and strange feeling of disconnect. I know to which self-serving purpose the communist government introduced martial law. But it's the United States, a democratic country, a self-professed defender of freedom. How could it so easily excuse itself and start behaving as an authoritarian regime?
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor presidential executive order provided for evacuating population from what was considered military areas. Over 110 thousand people of Japanese origin - many of them born in the USA - were sent to so called war relocation centers. They were forced to abandon their careers, businesses, houses, pets, furniture - everything that they could not carry. They were housed far away from major cities, in hastily built camps. Some volunteered to serve in the American Army. A few were killed in service, their posthumous medal and commendations delivered to their families kept prisoner of the American government.
Not much remains of the Manzanar camp today. The barracks and the buildings are almost all gone. The common hall is rebuilt and houses a moving exposition. Single restored watch tower reminds of what this place really was: a glorified concentration camp with barb wire and guards. Despite of what happened here, the place is eerily beautiful. Eastern slopes of Sierra Nevada with the highest peak of continental US Mount Whitney are not far away. The prisoners used to complain about constant wind, sand storms and extreme temperatures, but - ironically - it's calm and cool when we walk the grounds. The victory gardens, set up by internees, are no more; trees are dead and plots are covered with the desert sand and invaded by sagebrush. Manzanar the town shared the fate of Manzanar the camp. Desert slowly consumed everything after thirsty Los Angeles bought all the water rights in the Owens valley and made it impossible to grow anything here.
The war hysteria, the real and perceived fear of Japanese attack on Pacific coast, the fear of foreign spies. Similar excuses were used in other places and times. Canadians interned their Ukrainian population during the World War I because they considered them to be citizens of Austro-Hungarian empire. Also during the WWI American anti-German sentiment contributed to establishing prohibition and destroying beer industry supposedly in German hands. Nuremberg laws expelled Jews from German society and not much later placed them in ghettos and concentration camps. Jim Crow laws in southern states maintained racial segregation well into the 60s. Stalin's gulag archipelago decapitated and demoralized Russian society. Sadly what we are witnessing in Manzanar is not an isolated incident but a link in a long deadly chain of 20th century governments acting against their own people.
Things improve. After 9/11 attacks US did not relocate Muslims. Did not prosecute Saudis. Did not expel anyone based on their skin color, beliefs or nationality. The TIPS program that administration hoped to ask people to spy on their neighbors has been an embarrassing failure. But congress did pass the PATRIOT act. The Bush government did start a war after stirring fear and hysteria. The security theatre at airports continue to approach grotesque levels.
Many heartbreaking individual stories are retold in Manzanar museum: loss of everything overnight, divided families, broken promises, interrupted lives. The crime committed by the government acting against citizens is not emphasized.
The American constitution is short, expressive and uplifting. It describes basic freedoms in a language we can all understand and relate to. It ensures equal chances and fair trials, provides for a modicum of privacy and stability. But it does not promise the impossible. There is no guarantee there that you won't be offended by free speech, that you won't be killed by a rogue terrorist attack. World peace, good health and eternal youth are conspicuously missing. And no matter how long you look you won't find any provisions for limiting inalienable rights in the interest of safety. Administrations that violate the constitution suffer from a suicidal shortsightedness. They degrade the very document that is the sole reason of their existence and the only source of their power.
It took US government almost 50 years to apologize for Japanese American internment. I have no idea how long it will take Americans to apologize for - still open - Guantanamo base, for waterboarding, for keeping Bradley Manning for 8 months in a solitary confinement without a trial, for many excesses of Patriot act, for Iraq war. But I am sure that the apology will come one day. Do your part to keep your government accountable. Otherwise future presidents will not be apologizing to you. They will be apologizing for you.