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: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu


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