By Rep. Michael Honda
A photo of five year old Michael Honda immediately following his family’s release from internment. Image via the office of Rep. Honda.
Who would have thought that my early childhood experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II would offer such useful insight, sixty-five years later, in determining the direction America is headed? In reflecting on Thursday’s hearings on Muslim Americans, planned by Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.), I feel like a mirror is being held up to my life, giving value to lessons learned as a child.
Make no mistake. Growing up in internment camp Amache in Colorado was no joy ride –just look at the pictures. We were treated like cattle in those camps. Never mind the fact that we were born in America. Never mind the fact that we were patriotic Americans and law-abiding citizens. Never mind the fact that we were constructively contributing to the American economy. Despite all this, hundreds of thousands of Americans suddenly became the enemy at the height of the war, with no cause, no crime, and no constitutional protection.
We look back now, as a nation, and we know this was the wrong reaction. We look back now and know that this was a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” We look back now and know that an entire ethnicity was said to be, and ultimately considered, the enemy. We know that internment occurred because few in Washington were brave enough to say “no.”
We know all this, and yet our country is now, within my lifetime, repeating the same mistakes from our past. The interned four-year old in me is crying out for a course correction so that we do not do to others what we did unjustly to countless Japanese-Americans.
This time, instead of creating an ethnic enemy, Congressman King is creating a religious enemy. Because of prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of Republican leadership, King is targeting the entire Muslim-American community. Similar to my experience, they are become increasingly marginalized and isolated by our policies.
Never mind the fact that many were born in America and have no allegiance to their ancestors’ native homeland. Never mind the fact that they are patriotic Americans and law-abiding citizens. Never mind the fact that they are constructively contributing to the American economy. Irrespective of all this, millions of Americans have become the new enemy, with no cause and no crime.
There is no question that a congressional hearing, which targets an entire religion, is morally and strategically wrong-headed. First, it is un-American. This is not the America that I know and have helped build as a life-long public servant. The America that I know has always provided refuge for those fleeing persecution, from early settlers to recent refugees. The America that I know, furthermore, does not hate and discriminate base on race, religion or creed.
Second, it is counterproductive. Congressman King is undermining his own objective. In hosting these hearings, King, as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has declared, erroneously, that the Muslim-American community does not partner actively enough with law-enforcement officials to prevent potential acts of violence. Despite the offensive and fallacious nature of King’s concern, given extensive evidence that contradicts his claim, the Homeland Security chairman’s strategy makes future partnerships unpalatable.
In one fell swoop of his discriminatory brush, King, in his apparent attempt to root out radicalization, marginalizes an entire American minority group, making enemies of them all. To add insult to injury, King has quipped (again, speciously) that America has too many mosques and that extremists run 80 percent of them. We can only hope that Rep King does not completely undermine all the goodwill established across this country between Muslim Americans and law enforcement officials. You can be certain that few will want to work with King going forward.
Don’t get me wrong. I support the Homeland Security Committee examining “radicalization” in this country, provided it is a comprehensive review, not a discriminatory one that targets only one subgroup of America. I support the committee examining “violent extremism” in this country, including an examination of militias and the 30,000-plus gun-related deaths occurring each year. I support a committee chair that is keen to keep our homeland secure.
This is not the case with King. These hearings do little to keep our country secure and do plenty to increase prejudice, discrimination and hate. I thought we learned a lesson or two from my internment camp experience in Colorado. I hope I am not proven wrong.
Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) is Senior Democratic Whip and member of House Budget and Appropriations Committees.