Thursday, July 22, 2004

Hysteria, race, and reality

It's been pretty impressive, really, how quickly the American right has jumped aboard Annie Jacobsen's account in Women's Wall Street of an apparent band of brown-skinned terrorists doing a preparatory "dry run" on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles. The story is circulating everywhere (I'm sure I haven't been alone in receiving, from various friends and acquaintances, links and queries about it) and it's been receiving quite a bit of play in the right-wing media.

Problem is, of course, that it's entirely bogus.

What Jacobsen was describing, in fact, was a group of Syrian musicians en route to playing a date in San Diego or Las Vegas. The men's story completely checks out -- and a careful readaing of Jacobsen's account reveals in fact nothing "suspicious" at all, except a group of travelers observing their own religious rituals. Some of them -- including the fellow who kept opening and closing his prayer book -- were probably anxious about flying.

World O'Crap provides a definitive takedown of the story today, including a link to a piece from National Review Online which examined the case and found that the musicians were indeed a band for a fellow named "Nour Mehana (a.k.a. Noor Mehanna, or Nour Mhanna, plus various permutations of those spellings)" who "is, in fact, Syrian. He performs both 'new-agey' hits and old sentimental Middle Eastern classics in a style called Tarab. ... Followers of news from Iraq may have heard about the U.S. tour of the 'Iraqi Elvis.' Well, Mehana comes across not as an angry jihadi, but rather more like the Syrian Wayne Newton."

Jacobsen, like any self-respecting hysteria-monger, is sticking to her guns. Indeed, as W'OC notes, she appeared on CNN last night and continued to insist the men were terrorists. [Oddly enough, no transcript of the show appears available yet.]

The whole episode reveals, in a pretty public way, just how problematic the entire notion of recruiting the public to be on the lookout for terrorist activity really is. Because Jacobsen's piece created such a maelstrom in a mudpit among right-wingers, a large section of Homeland Security officialdom and airline-security apparatus have been obliged to spend large chunks of taxpayer-funded time responding to the irrational fears she's whipped up.

The end result is that a large cross-section of the populace -- most of whom will never read the debunkings -- will be left with the impression Jacobsen's fears were justified. And by extension, their own fears will be, once again, amplified as well.

I mentioned earlier that the effort to recruit truckers and other workers to provide information on "suspicious activity" was proving to be more an exercize in enabling the ostracization and harassment of anyone "different," particularly men with brown skin and turbans. Jacobsen's piece was more of the same, with the general public the target.

There should be little doubt that race plays a major role in this kind of hysteria. As we've mentioned numerous times, Islamic extremists are not the only terrorists who pose real threats to the public's well-being. So are certain American whites.

What if Annie Jacobsen had encountered, say, a thin young kid from Buffalo who reeked of racing fuel and fertilizer and was fueling up a Ryder truck at the gas pump next to hers? Do you think we would be reading her breathless account of the encounter now?

Jacobsen's kind of hysteria, it must be emphasized, is not harmless. It breeds an already unhealthy level of fear in the populace, and worst of all, it directs it toward an identifiable (but only vaguely so) racial minority.

This has happened before in America. In the spring of 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a similar kind of racial hysteria swept the Pacific Coast, focusing suspicion on anyone of Japanese descent, playing on long-established conspiracist beliefs that the Nikkei immigrants were traitors in waiting.

I described this briefly in Strawberry Days: The Rise and Fall of Japanese-American Community, my account of a farming community destroyed by the nightmare that befell the Nikkei during World War II (the book is scheduled to be published this spring by Palgrave/Macmillan). As I explain at length, the leading figure in fomenting this hysteria was Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, the Western Defense commander based in San Francisco, who repeatedly fed the public fears about imminent attack along the coastline. However, it quickly spread:
DeWitt was hardly alone in fanning the flames of hysteria that ran rampant on the Pacific Coast in the months following Pearl Harbor. A broad array of federal and local officials chimed in, often trumpeting unfounded rumors to the press as stated fact. Navy Secretary Frank Knox, for instance, had declared to reporters that the Pearl Harbor disaster had been a direct result of "fifth column" activity by Japanese-American spies in Hawaii (a report that later proved to be completely groundless). Not surprisingly, politicians of nearly every stripe joined in the headline-grabbing spree. The old anti-Japanese legends of the 1920s surfaced for a fresh retelling: The immigrants were insular mercenaries who intended to return to Japan anyway. Their children were all thoroughly indoctrinated subjects of Tojo. They could never be "American." And they secretly hated us.

A popular consensus had already been reached, confirming suspicions many had held for years: The "Japs" in their midst were spying for Japan.

"People in positions where they could influence the population, they sure did," recalls Tosh Ito. "I think people listened a lot more to them. There was a lot of hysteria because of the media, too."

For a war-happy press anxious for a local angle on the conflict, the prospect of a West Coast invasion made great-selling copy. The Los Angeles Times ran headlines like "Jap Boat Flashes Message Ashore" and "Caps on Japanese Tomato Plants Point to Air Base." Pretty soon, everyone was getting into the act. Reports of "signals" being sent out from shore to unknown, mysterious Japanese boats offshore began flowing in. One report, widely believed at the time, came from someone who heard a dog barking somewhere along the shore of Oahu, and believed that it was barking in Morse code to an offshore spy ship.

In the Seattle area, the stories were almost as ridiculous. "Arrows of Fire Aim at Seattle" shouted the Seattle Times' front-page headline of December 10. It told of fields in the Port Angeles area, between Seattle and the Pacific Ocean on the Olympic Peninsula, that had been set afire by Japanese farmers in a shape resembling an arrow, when viewed from the air; ostensibly, the arrow pointed to the Seattle shipyards and airplane-manufacturing plants, a likely target for incoming bombers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blared a similar front-page story the next morning. Neither paper carried any subsequent stories about the fires —- which investigators soon determined had been set by white men who were clearing land.

"Then I heard stories about these guys at Midlakes," says Joe Matsuzawa. "They had these wires, and cloth hanging on the wire, out in their crops to scare the birds away. And they said that was pointed to help guide the planes in." The tomato-cap story first circulated in Los Angeles was bandied about in Seattle, too.

Despite having his father locked away, Ty Matsuoka found that his family came under suspicion just for being Japanese. "Our house was on top of the hill there on Bel-Red there, and we had a yard light," he says. "And you know, you're supposed to shut the yard light off. All lights are supposed to be off at sundown. Ah, you know, kids will be kids, and sometimes you forget to shut the darn yard light off because you'd be out there. I guess 8 or 9 o'clock it'd get dark. And this woman lived on 116th, which would be down the hill and across. And she would call the sheriff's office whenever we didn't shut the light off by 9 o'clock. So he'd have to come. And the thing is, I was in the same grade as her son. Those kinds of things you tend to remember."

Self-appointed protectors of the community also forced Japanese Americans out of their jobs. In Seattle, 26 young Nisei women were forced to resign their positions as clerks in the Seattle School District after a group of mothers in the Gatewood PTA protested their employment.

The end result of this hysteria, of course, was that we violated the constitutional rights of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans, over 70,000 of them citizens, by rounding them up en masse and incarcerating them for the war's duration in concentration camps.

A number of scholars -- most notably Testsuden Kashima, whose recent Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II provides some of the keenest insights on this point -- have subsequently pointed out that the internment was in fact a well-planned event many years in the making at the highest levels of government. But the role played by the wartime hysteria was significant nonetheless, because not only did the public view the internment favorably, it positively demanded it, in the most vicious terms, as I describe a little later in Strawberry Days:
By late February [1942] the removal of all Japanese from the West Coast had become a favorite topic from Los Angeles to Seattle, led particularly by politicians. One of these was Rep. Andrew Jackson Hinshaw, an Orange County Republican, who demanded in early March that the Roosevelt administration "stop fiddling around" and begin removing all Japanese from the coast. According to the Associated Press, Hinshaw "said he had word that Japanese plans call for a major attack on Hawaii and West Coast sabotage next month. His information, he added, came 'from a source which has been heretofore reliable, though unheeded by our government.' "

The removal would not be without problems, warned some. "Approximately 95 percent of the vegetables grown here are raised by the Japanese," noted J.R. Davidson, market master for the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle, where Eastside Japanese sold many of their goods. "About 35 percent of the sellers in the market are Japanese. Many white persons are leaving the produce business to take defense jobs, which are not open to the Japanese." Letter writers to the local newspapers raised the same concern.

Their fears were quickly derided. "It has been interesting to note how many contributors have been afraid we would have no garden truck if the Japs are sent to concentration areas," wrote Charlotte Drysdale of Seattle in a letter to the Post-Intelligencer. "We had gardens long before the Japs were imported about the turn of the century, to work for a very low wage (a move for which we are still paying dearly) and we can still have them after we have no Japs.

"Isn't that discounting American ability just a little too low?

"And by Americans I mean not the children of the races ineligible to naturalization. The mere fact that a child is born in this country should not give him the rights and privileges of citizenship.

"The fourteenth amendment, granting automatic citizenship to American born, was placed there for the protection of the Negro and at that time the great infiltration of Japs was not even thought of. In recent years there has been so much fear of hurting the feelings of these people that no one has had the courage to try to rectify the situation. Now it would seem that the time is ripe to put things right, for once and for all time." (She was not alone in this sentiment. Senator Tom Stewart of Tennessee proposed stripping citizenship from anyone of Japanese descent: "A Jap's a Jap anywhere," he said. )

The press became the chief cheerleaders for removing the Japanese. The Seattle Times ran a news story alerting its readers: "Hundreds of alien and American-born Japanese are living near strategic defense units, a police survey showed today. ... There are Japanese in the neighborhood of every reservoir, bridge and defense project."

The Times also ran columns by noted conservative Henry McLemore, who frequently attacked the presence of Japanese descendants on the West Coast. In one column, headlined, "This Is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings," McLemore fulminated: "...I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior, either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room of the badlands. Let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it. ... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them."

His sentiments were shared by many of the locals. Wrote W.M. Mason of Seattle, in a letter to the editor of the Post-Intelligencer: "If there be those who would say we can't do this to citizens, let them remember that we took this country from the Indians, killed thousands of them, arbitrarily moved other thousands from their homes to far distant lands, and to this day have denied them the rights, duties and privileges of citizenship.

"If we could do that to the Indians, we can do something about the Japs.

"Let's do it now!"

And so they did.

The reality, just as it was in 1942, is that focusing on a single race as "the enemy" is not only wrong-headed and grotesquely unjust, it's amazingly ineffective. The United States wasted a large portion of its wartime food production by incarcerating Japanese farmers, devoted millions of taxpayer dollars to rounding them up and incarcerating them, and eventually paid billions more in reparations for having done so.

More to the point, the reality is this: It's extremely, extremely unlikely that you will witness real terrorists in action, whether merely "warming up" or actually carrying out a plot. Suspecting someone merely because they are a different color or are acting in a way you think is unusual is almost certainly a leap of logic based in prejudice and false stereotypes.

Of course, genuinely suspicious activity should be reported. But even then, it's important to keep your feet on the ground and not stir up any unnecessary fearfulness, either in yourself or in others around you. Recognize that the authorities will in fact address your concerns and investigate anything you report, and it's best to let them do so. Whatever you do, don't leap to assumptions based on nameless fears and stereotypes.

This is the frank advice that government officials should be giving to the would-be citizen watchdogs it is recruiting to be the "eyes and ears" of Homeland Security. You may reach your own conclusions about why they are not.

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