by Scott Kurashagi
In May 2007, George W. Bush welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to the White House, hosting a ceremony attended by 7,000 guests followed by the first white-tie state dinner of his presidency. If we abide by the twisted logic of some “Ground Zero mosque” opponents, we must now view this affair as controversial, explosive, and offensive.
With Bush and the Republicans in charge, our government honored the monarch of a nation that once invaded America and destroyed much of our capital city. When Bush remarked that the UK had “written many of the greatest chapters in the history of human freedom” he neglected to point out that British invaders had burned down the White House itself—with the First Lady inside of it.
The enemy forces also torched the Senate. House, Treasury, and Library of Congress. The result was a still unprecedented occupation of Washington, DC by a foreign power.
Try as I might, I cannot find any evidence that Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, or the other self-appointed guardians of our national honor and dignity did anything to stop Bush from letting the royal family set foot on the hallowed ground the British once savagely desecrated. (Bush the Father also invited the queen to the White House in 1991.)
Do they not consider our government’s most cherished structures, our highest symbols of freedom and democracy, to be sacred spaces worthy of their patriotic protection? What message are they sending to the descendants of the 20,000 Americans whose lives were lost (as a direct result of combat or an indirect result of disease) to the War of 1812?
This contradiction speaks volumes to the use and abuse of historical analogy in the service of contemporary political debate. Gingrich and Krauthammer have been two of the most prominent opponents of the proposed Islamic center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. Both have drawn parallels to the suffering of the Holocaust and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In the former case, the atrocities are directly attributable to the “Nazis”—leaders of a distinct fascist group that rose to power with Hitler and whose contemporary allegiants are rightly viewed as extremists. Thus, as Gingrich argues, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washingtion.”
There is, however, no parallel term in American discourse for the latter case. Gingrich didn’t say “the Taisei Yokusankai, a fascist grouping which took control of Japan in the lead up to World War II, has no right establish a monument at Pearl Harbor.” He said, “we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.”
In his view, we affix permanent blame for the attack to “the Japanese”—a term which blurs the distinction between people, “race,” and nation.
While we can forgive the British royal family for the tyranny of its ancestors, Americans can seemingly never forget that “the ‘Japanese‘ attacked Pearl Harbor.” This is despite the fact that Japan has been one of America’s most vital and trusted allies for over six decades, that its entire system of government was designed by American overseers, and that its constitution is unique in the world in its dedication to pacifism.
In large measure, as historian John Dower has argued, this attitude reflects the racial discourse of World War II. While the U.S. always believed there were “good Germans” who could be allied against “the Nazis,” the Pacific Theater enemy was routinely labeled “the Japs” and “the Nips”—a savage race marked for extermination because its treachery was part of its blood.
Domestically, the U.S. government upheld the notion that “a Jap is a Jap” as it forced both immigrants and American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Many politicians argued that the most highly assimilated Japanese Americans professing the greatest loyalty to America posed the gravest danger because they were best positioned to launch a “sneak attack” or a “second Pearl Harbor.” Mass public suspicion of Japanese Americans ran so deep that even babies in orphanages were held behind barbed wires.
It took the actions of the U.S. military itself to begin to cut down the “race war” discourse, which played into imperial Japan’s efforts to rally all of Asia against American white supremacy. Reversing its policy of excluding Japanese Americans from the military, the U.S. inducted Japanese American soldiers to serve in both Europe and Asia. Only by going against popular racist sentiment did the military wind up with the Nisei soldiers who became the backbone of the war’s most decorated American unit.
Had the populist mob carried the day, Japanese Americans would have endured even more than continued internment and a ban on military service. Some political leaders portrayed the American-born Japanese as the product of a 50-year plot by Japan to attack American from within. They called for stripping them of birthright citizenship and even shipping them all off to Japan. Fortunately, this was not carried out even at the height of wartime hysteria.
If the madness surrounding the rapidly degenerating debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” must serve as another one of those “teachable moments,” let it serve to expose the contradictions that rest at the heart of our national identity and history.
We can go back to the “race war” logic of the Pacific War and see ourselves in a clash of civilizations with Islam. But in doing so, we allow our greatest fears and prejudices to triumph over our most democratic ideals and Constitutional rights. We blur the distinction between the 9/11 attackers and an Islamic organization that is a longtime member in good standing of the Lower Manhattan neighborhood and dedicated to promoting interfaith harmony. We stereotype Muslims in America as an inscrutable and untrustworthy group, so that law-abiding behavior and peaceful intentions are less relevant than the future possibility (as Krauthammer suggests) that the Islamic center could one day harbor proponents of terrorism. And we commit ourselves to strategies that are divisive and self-defeating.
Or, as we wrestle with global economic, political, and environmental crises, we can view our struggle to build a democratic, multiethnic society as a pillar of strength that positions us to build harmonious relations with the international community. Just as Japanese Americans died on December 7, Muslim Americans died on September 11. Just as Japanese Americans played a crucial role fighting fascism during World War II, Muslim Americans are integral part of our community and our struggles for peace and justice.
Finally, as we memorialize the World Trade Center, let us not forget that its chief designer was a Japanese American, Minoru Yamasaki, whose international renown as an architect and advocate for world peace symbolized a new spirit of tolerance being born out of the tragedies of war.