Syrian refugees, Japanese American internees, and the new American hysteria


Does it feel like 1942 to you yet?

America, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t feeling like itself these days.

Instead of large, gracious and visionary–the bastion of freedom and liberty—our country and its leaders are feeling puny and small. Donald Trump “Put up a Wall” small.

And it all changed on Nov. 13.

Add that day to Sept. 11 on your list of days we should never forget.

On that Friday the 13th, the terrorist attacks in Paris seemed to make everyone a Francophile again. And it turned most of our politicians and leaders into raging Islamophobes.

Sure enough, by Monday, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump was linking the ISIS terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks with the Syrian refugee crisis. What do the two have to do with each other?

Nothing really.

But you can make the uncritical link like Trump did the other day and sound totally reasonable.

Then again, he tries to make deporting 11 million people seem rational.

Trump was on with a right-wing radio host in Boston this week and didn’t sound apologetic for practically stripping the Statue of Liberty naked and blowing out her torch.

“This isn’t a question of refugees,” Trump reportedly said on the radio program. “This is a question of safety for the people for our country…This could be the ultimate Trojan horse where people are coming in under the guise that we are taking care of them and they end up blowing up big parts of our cities.”

Meanwhile, President Obama was in Turkey, before heading to the Philippines for APEC this week.

And before he got to Manila, he put ISIL/ISIS in its place.

It’s no nation state, the president said. It’s a band of suicide killers.

I was struck by his blunt line: “If you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, you can kill a lot of people.”

That’s what America is up against.

When the fodder doesn’t mind being the fodder, that’s worse than going up against the terminator.

But the president warned that stereotyping ISIL will lead to greater recruitment if this becomes defined “as a Muslim problem, as opposed to a terrorist problem.”

The puny terrorists need leverage to win.

In fact, they can’t win, unless the leaders in the west act even punier–which our leaders do when they rely on fear.

So what do our politicians do?

They go straight to fear.

There are now more than 30 governors who want to ban Syrian refugees in the U.S.


When I talked with Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17) this week, he was trying to stay optimistic. “There are about 17 governors who will say yes,” said Honda, when I called him this week.

Yes, that’s a little bit better than 1942, when only a single governor (from Colorado) was brave enough to stand up to the anti-Japanese war hysteria and say no to the internment.

But if we’re better than 1942, it’s not by much.


Not when one public official, Mayor David Bowers of Roanoke, Virginia, proudly proclaims this:

I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.

You see, it really is 1942.

Honda, an incarcerated relocation camp baby, was astonished by Bowers’ wrongheadedness on the matter. He remembers Executive Order 9066.

As a bawling infant, Honda’s camp experience was not much different than that of the infants and orphans among the Syrian refugees. Yearning for a clean diaper, he was an innocent caught in the hateful politics of the day.

But he was lucky.

He survived the camps and grew up to be a congressman.

The Syrian refugees are being denied even a horse-stall in America.

By week’s end, the House of Representatives has followed suit with a veto-proof 289-137 vote to block Syrian refugees’ entry without a more thorough screening in place.

Never mind that it’s pretty stringent now and can take up to two years for the majority of refugees who want to come to America—orphans, women, senior citizens.

The vote was an act of political cowardice. Politicians giving in to fear, with 47 Democrats swayed by GOP hysteria.

Make no mistake, this was led by the “small government,” “free-market” types, who were more than happy to shut the door on the people we used to routinely welcome to America.

There are better approaches to the entire mess, ISIS and refugees.

But it will take less fear mongering and a lot more understanding.

Iyad Madani, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the OIC, was on CNN this week donning a headdress scarf known as a keffiyeh.

I hope people watching could get beyond his keffiyeh.

Because Madani makes a lot of sense.

The OIC is the second-largest intergovernmental organization after the UN, with a membership of 57 states over four continents.

The group condemned the Paris attacks, and this week, Madani said pretty bluntly what America should do.

“If you want to face up to this phenomenon of terrorism of extreme violence, you have to understand the context, the causes, the roots, the environments were such phenomena breeds,” he said. “Security measures, military bombardments will not do the trick. This should be part of a larger approach…It’s unfortunate that all the money is spent on military action in Syria and Iraq. But what about the political context, the socio economic environment? What about dismantling the discourse on both sides.”

Dismantling the discourse on both sides? It’s changing the narrative to a more humanitarian approach.

“What you call ISIS, we call the Non Islamic state, NISIS,” Madani said. “They are criminals, nihilists. We should deprive them of the legitimacy they claim for themselves.”

But ISIS knows what ails Syrians, Iraqis, and sympathetic Muslims worldwide. ISIS sees young people with no purpose and gives them something to live for. Madani sees it as part of the ISIS process: It gives the hopeless a sense of promise, a source of income, a sense of community.

Then it bags a new recruit.

Likewise, the manipulation works on the west.

The more you hear about “boots on the ground” and see Congress pass an anti-Syrian refugee bill, ISIS knows it’ s winning.

The GOP, and the 53 percent in the Bloomberg national poll who say Syrian refugees should go home, play right into the hands of the terrorists.

In the wake of all that, Asian Americans should be the loudest critics.

We know from history that a strategy of xenophobia and hate isn’t right for our democracy.

It didn’t work in 1942.

It’s not going to work now.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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