On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which, with the stroke of a pen, began the process of rounding up 120,000 Japanese men, women, and children -- all Americans -- packing them onto trains like cattle, and transporting them to military bases where, though innocent of any crime, they were guarded at the point of a gun.
This February, 74 years later, I was invited to speak at an event commemorating that order. But the topic I was asked to address was not the anti-Japanese racism of three-quarters of a century ago, but the fear of Muslims being preached today. The topic struck me because I fear that many are forgetting the lessons of our past. They forget what we are capable of.
Why do I bring that up now? Well, just a few days ago we marked Holocaust Remembrance Day -- an international day of recognition and memory for the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe. We are also in the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), a month devoted to celebrating the unique accomplishments and contributions of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
Normally, we'd mark these events separately; one in solemnity, the other in celebration. But this year, as xenophobic, bigoted and anti-Muslim rhetoric become mainstream again, I'm forced to look at APAHM much the way I looked at the anniversary of E.O. 9066. That is because any true understanding of AAPI achievements is incomplete without also understanding the period of Japanese imprisonment or the Chinese Exclusion Act, the law that, from 1882 to 1943, stopped the immigration of Chinese to the U.S. and prevented the Chinese already here from becoming naturalized citizens so that they could not vote.
In each case -- Japanese imprisonment, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Holocaust, and today's political anti-Islamic rhetoric -- fear and prejudice became excuses for the inexcusable: violence and discrimination. But we must remember that today, this month, and forever. Because it could happen again.
Now, many say that the demonization of Muslims, Mexicans, or Chinese today is just the result of election-year politics. That is misguided. Prejudice is not a storm that crashes and passes. It is a weed that must constantly be cut back, lest it take over. Remembering these events requires remembering that they were committed by people, and they started with something that seems so harmless -- words. We are not unique by virtue of being American. Nor are we immune. Our history shows that we are just as susceptible to hatred and discrimination as any other. And when we have allowed it to flourish, we have allowed it to deny millions of others their humanity.
I'm chilled and frightened when I hear of Chinese-American scientists being wrongfully accused of espionage, or when I read a story of a person being violently beaten simply for even appearing Middle Eastern. Perhaps scariest of all are the calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country or to force all Mexicans out.
Is our memory really so short? The Holocaust, Japanese imprisonment, and the Chinese Exclusion Act all took place within the last century. Some who lived through them are still with us today.
So what do we do about it? We vow that "never again" means "never again" by stopping the demonization of one group or another. We speak out. We say that remembering these events means refusing to walk that path again. We remember by refusing to tolerate hate speech or the demonization of any race or religion that allows us to see other humans as anything less. It is only then that we are strong enough to protect the rights and dignity of all.