Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Guantanamo and the Japanese Internment Camps


It was a curious and not altogether felicitous temporal juxtaposition in The New York Times on June 30: the first, a story in the Sunday Magazine by Ted Conover called “In the Land of Guantanamo” the second, the same day, a story datelined Hunt, Idaho, by Sarah Kershaw headlined “Japanese-Americans Relive Barbed Era.”

Ms. Kershaw’s story opened as follows: “After six decades, memories of life at an internment camp deep in a desolate wasteland of southern Idaho were foggy and fragmented, all but the most searing images diluted by time.” Mr. Conover’s story begins: “The juvenile enemy combatants live in a prison called Camp Iguana.” Ms. Kershaw’s is a story of guilt partially expiated. Mr. Conover’s is a story of guilt awaiting awakening when a humane government is restored. Both stories are wrenching.

Ms. Kershaw describes the reaction of the aged survivors of the Minidoka Relocation Center on a return visit to a place that housed 13,000 Japanese-Americans (one of 10 such installations). The U.S. government, fearful of terrorist acts known as “sabotage,” sacrificed the civil liberties of 120,000 people who were, by definition, partly and recently foreign, in order to protect those who were partly, but in the distant past, foreign, and, more importantly, not Japanese.

Ms. Kershaw’s was a poignant description of a dignified group of people being treated in an undignified way by a government rendered constitutionally insensate by fear. The survivors described waiting in line for food and living in wooden barracks covered with tar paper. Sally Sudo of Minneapolis described how her parents and eight siblings were given rooms C and D in Barrack 2 of Block 14, 10 people in two rooms. Families were assigned numbers to identify them.

Ms. Sudo’s father came to the United States in 1899. He was forcibly relocated after Pearl Harbor. His daughter said that he lost everything while interned. The last 20 years of his life “he didn’t really live, he just existed,” she said.

In 1988 Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act. It provided for a formal apology to Japanese-Americans interned and restitution payment of $20,000 to each internee. That is the value Congress placed on depriving 120,000 people of their liberty for periods of up to four years. Jerry Arai, an architect from Seattle said: “We were here for almost three years. Surrounded by barbed wire, guards and watchtowers, living in exile. We cannot forget these hardships the Japanese endured. Let us not stand back in the midst of fear, hate and prejudice to see it happen to others.”

Mr. Conover’s tale reminds us that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are sponsoring fear, hate and prejudice.

Mr. Conover visited Guantanamo, where enemy combatants from the war in Afghanistan are being held. It has Camp Iguana for teenagers and Camp Delta for adults. The teenagers live in rooms painted “Carolina blue” and enjoy a grassy yard in which they spend time each day. Adults live in cages 6 feet 8 inches by 8 feet, the doors and walls of which are made of a tight mesh. Prisoners at Camp Delta are permitted 20 minutes of solitary exercise three times a week and following that are permitted a five-minute shower. The rest of the time they are confined to their cages. Mr. Conover observes, “[E]ven in most American supermaxes, the cells are larger and prisoners are let out for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.”

The Japanese-Americans and those interned at Guantanamo had at least one thing in common in addition to involuntary incarceration. The Japanese did not know how long they would be confined since they did not know when the war would end. Prisoners at Guantanamo do not know how long they will be confined because they have been labeled “enemy combatants,” and like Japanese Americans during World War II, they can be held indefinitely.

In order to write “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” a description of life in New York’s Sing Sing Prison, Mr. Conover spent a year working there as a guard. One of his observations, recounted in his New York Times piece, is that prisoners are all keenly aware of the length of their sentences. The fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel, (for those not incarcerated for life) is enormously important and part of what keeps them going from day to day.

The prisoners at Guantanamo are depressed. They do not know when they will get out and they have no access to courts. They are held at the whim of an administration that has whipped its populace into such a fervor that people no longer care about human rights if their leaders tell them that caring would put their own safety in jeopardy. There is, however, one bright spot learned as a result of the Japanese experience.

At some point the people in the United States will begin to feel guilty about how the prisoners have been treated. They will acknowledge that it is inhumane to hold people indefinitely, even when the people of the United States are (or in the case of their leaders, pretend to be, in order to make the people more pliant) afraid. In the case of the Japanese-Americans it took approximately 44 years for that to happen. If our sensitivity curve remains intact, most of the people at Guantanamo can expect to be freed by 2048 and perhaps even given some remuneration. That should cheer them up. It doesn’t have the same effect on me.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. He can be reached at:


More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future