For the AAPI community, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII by the U.S. and the subsequent redress payments is a major human rights milestone. There’s a similar story relevant to today’s confluence of historical events, Queen Elizabeth’s passing and the anniversary of 9/11.
But first, let’s deal with this past Sunday.
I always watch the 9/11 anniversary name reading ceremony because names are real landmarks in history. For example, “Queen Elizabeth II,” or simply, as she’s been known the last 70 years, “the Queen,” prompts history. That is, if anyone bothers to learn it, let alone remember it. But maybe that’s the point of the Queen’s existence. Her Majesty’s perceived goodness had the effect of obliterating from memory the evil of the British colonial past. Having this queen was royally good PR.
No queens died on 9/11, 21 years ago. Firefighters from Queens. But no queens.
These first responders were among the nearly 3,000 people to perish in New York, at the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania.
On every 9/11, they get remembered because the names are all that remain.
And they are all incredible names when read aloud. Even the Smiths and Joneses are extraordinary, in that slow, unrelentingly poetic march of diversity, where the Lees are Black, White and Asian. And then the list unwinds from Lewis to Liang to Orasi Liangthanasarn. Then it picks up speed from Chow Kwan Lam to Charles A. Laurencin, to Charles A. L’esperance, when one literally lands on hope.
I even have a favorite name I’ve liked through the years: Chin Sun Pak Wells.
When I first visited the 9/11 site in 2013 to see the fountains and the etched names, Chin Sun Pak Wells struck me as a name so uniquely American. I learned she was born in Tongduchun, Korea and raised in Oklahoma. The Army enlistee ended up as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel at the Pentagon. That’s where she died on 9/11.
She would have been 47 on Sept. 13 this year.
Of course, she was known to her friends as Sunny.
Ultimately, it’s in the names where one finds what we need most–a sense of hope and optimism.
THE LEGACY OF 9/11
This year the name tellers got to say a little more. And no one stopped them. Which is good. I didn’t mind the mini-speeches at all. One woman read the preamble to the Constitution. The “We the People” part. All of them were a reminder that we are one people still, though the names used to be enough.
Even President Biden at the Pentagon touched on that theme in a message that was derivative of his “Soul of America” speech.
He said the greatest lesson of 9/11 was “a true sense of national unity,” but that we also had to “face down the worst impulses, fear, violence, recrimination directed against Muslim Americans, as well as Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage.”
Biden said the hijackers were trying to destroy what makes us unique in the world.
“Our democracy is based on an idea that everyone is created equal and should be treated equally throughout our lives,” Biden said. “That’s what makes us strong. That’s what makes us who we are.”
The names are a reminder that we have become that great diverse democracy of the world.
But 9/11 is also a reminder that we are still trying to overcome all that changed on the day America itself became a war zone. 9/11 heightened our sense of insecurity. It led to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. But it also brought on the U.S. wars with Iraq, and then the Obama presidency, as well as a growing sense of nativism, fear, and xenophobia.
“It’s all a legacy of 9/11 and that’s what brought us Trump,” CNN’s John King said as the names ceremony and events of the day split my TV screen. “You can trace everything that has happened in our politics since; you can trace back to that day and the forces it unleashed.”
But, of course, he left out one thing.
The hijackers were connected to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan, a nation-state with a long warring history with the British Empire going back to 1838.
The British Empire, you’ll recall, was in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. And if you connect all the dots, the Queen’s death this week makes a discussion of the British Empire relevant again.
AND NOW FOR THE QUEEN, THE BRITISH EMPIRE, AND ALL IT STANDS FOR
At St. Paul’s Church in London on Friday, they changed the lyric and unveiled the new tune, “God Save the King.” But should we?
King Charles III seemed aware of the precariousness of the state of the crown as he spoke to his subjects for the first time promising to “rule with love.”
The Diana kind of love or the Camilla kind?
But let’s be kind.
Saying the word “love,” Charles was more Queen-like, less British Empire like, which is precisely the deodorizing effect a modern monarch wants to have after several centuries of evil ruled by violence.
That’s a fact. At one point more than a third of the world’s land mass and 700 million people were under the British Empire. And you don’t reach that zenith simply with love and service.
It takes force and might, and a roaring sense of white supremacy. You’ll recall Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden,” often used as moral justification for empire, because who but the white man could civilize the black and the brown people of the world? And so Britain entered Africa and Asia in places like Kenya, Hong Kong, Burma, and India.
The Brits were even in the Philippines. For a brief time, the Brits occupied Manila from 1762-1764. Maybe they couldn’t find decent bangers and mash? They left us to be colonized by Spain, then ultimately America, which colonized the Philippines after the Philippine-U.S. War.
But to see the impacts of British colonialism, just go back to how the British dealt with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. According to the 2005 book “Britain’s Gulag” by Harvard Professor Caroline Elkins, the British held up to 320,000 Kenyan Kikuyu people in detention camps where people were starved, tortured, and raped. The book estimates that as many as hundreds of thousands of people died.
Among the people Elkins interviewed were Paulo Nzili who said he was castrated with pliers at a camp.
And there was Jane Muthoni Mara, who said she was raped with a heated glass bottle.
Just two of the names of those victimized by the systematic violence of British rule.
Elkins’ book also helped to uncover a previously unknown batch of files—more than 240,000 secret files—that were removed at the time Kenya became independent in 1963. The documents were part of a secret history of Kenya and 37 other countries that the British intended to purge from their colonial past.
But because of the documents, and helped by Elkins serving as an expert witness, a handful of survivors of the Kenyan detention camps were able to sue for reparations in 2011.
Ultimately in 2013, 5,228 Kenyans who were subjected to “torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration” were each given reparations payment of around 3,800 pounds each, according to a statement from Parliament.
That’s far less than Japanese Americans got for their incarceration during World War II for a prison camp experience that was far worse.
And it all happened during the Queen’s watch.
Elkins, who is now professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard, and founding director of its Center for African Studies, has a new book out this year, “Legacy of Violence.” In it, she takes a broader look at how for centuries Britain used what she called “legal lawlessness” to bend the rule of law to morally justify its imperial rule from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The Queen’s passing couldn’t come at a better time to re-evaluate and understand just how strongly Britain believed in the “velvet glove, iron fist” mentality that brutalized the world.
At this stage, the news of the day is hung up on the ceremonial pomp of the Queen’s death.
But you shouldn’t.
Think instead of how the Royals serve like the cherry on top of some really bad things. And how they’ve long been a distraction from what was really going on in the name of the British people. Yes, kings and queens have no power politically, but they give a nation an image and identity of what it stands for. Generally good, despite the reality. But remember the cruel repression of Kenyan Kikuyu people, and other free people of the world. Think of where the ruling junta of Myanmar learned how to govern. That’s what the British empire was about. And then think of the effort to hide the documents to obscure the British Empire’s enduring MO: the taking of resources in foreign lands to enrich the mother country while subjugating the people of those foreign lands through violence and, yes, racism.
That doesn’t sound like a point of pride to me.
But the figurehead Queen and her scepter made it seem all right. She was “in service.” And ruling, as Charles has reiterated he would do, “with love.”
That’s some tall order.
No wonder in his first speech before Parliament on Monday, King Charles said, “I cannot help but feel the weight of history, which surrounds us.”
None of us can.
When a Queen dies just days before a 9/11 remembrance, we are all surrounded by the weight of history.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.