At one time Japanese were the only residents on the Los Angeles street where my dearest friend lives. Most of them survivors of one of the most shameful periods in American history. At the start of World War II, anti -Japanese hostility fueled fears that Japanese-Americans were enemies of the state. In the name of security, these citizens were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps in remote areas of Utah and Colorado and 5 other states. Before it was over 127 thousand Japanese were interned. Their only crime-- being Japanese.
Americans eventually recognized the injustice and provided reparations, but mostly swore never to forget the hateful episode of the Japanese internment, never to forget how easy it is for fear to be a weapon. Then the terrorist attacks in Paris happened. And the Syrian refugees quickly became collateral damage.
Now these refugees are not seen as women and children seeking asylum from the terrors of their war torn country, but as a potential threat to national security. I’m not a wide-eyed naïf; I understand what these attacks mean. And I’ll confess that I felt stomach churning cold fear when I learned that one of the brutal assailants apparently slipped into Europe amongst the fleeing Syrian migrants. In that moment I wondered how America could protect itself against those who would pose among the innocent.
And as I noted during last year’s Ebola crisis, fear takes over even when you know better. I expected what happened in Paris to ratchet up biases already stirred during this presidential campaign season. But, I didn’t expect that strident commentary to prompt calls to stop Syrian resettlement altogether-- to be what House Speaker Paul Ryan described as, “better safe than sorry.”
And I certainly didn't expect that more than half the nation’s governors-- all but one Republican--would publicly refuse to allow the Syrians in their states. Or offer to take Christian Syrians, but not Muslim ones. Governor Charlie Baker says he’s not outright rejecting the refugees, but he wants evidence of stringent background checks before he approves their coming to Massachusetts. Legally neither Baker nor any of the other governors have an official say since this comes under federal jurisdiction.
You know the old saying those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it? Both Missouri state senator Mike Moon and Rhode Island state senator Elaine Morgan want to isolate Syrian refugees in camps. It’s important to remember that heated anti- Japanese sentiment gave President Roosevelt the impetus to create internment camps. I worry that all this highly charged rhetoric aimed at Syrians may lead to another action that is, once again, fundamentally un-American.
I want to be safe, but keeping out every single Syrian refugee won’t guarantee it. I hope our leaders and those who would be our leaders accept that soon. And can helps us improve a world that right now feels like nothing but grief and never ending terror.
>> Callie Crossley's commentaries can be heard Monday morning on WGBH. Previous commentaries can be heard here.