By NORMAN Y. MINETA and GORDON YAMATE
Ten years ago, the United States was shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks upon New York City and Washington, D.C. In the immediate aftermath, the Japanese American National Museum contemplated its role in response to these unthinkable events. Clearly, more than our country’s national security was under attack. Our way of life as a democratic, open society was being challenged.
The Japanese American National Museum recognized the historic parallels between 2001 and 1941 when World War II erupted. In 1942, the United States government implemented Executive Order 9066, violating the constitutional rights of Americans of Japanese ancestry by forcibly removing them from their homes and incarcerating more than 120,000 of them in detention camps without charge and without trial.
That U.S. citizens and legal residents might be victimized because of their race or religion 60 years later was on the minds of all who were familiar with the Japanese American World War II experience.
Many essential history lessons emerged from that experience. But most troubling, few individuals and organizations voiced misgivings about the absence of due process for thousands of American citizens. American democracy requires the vigilance and full participation of its citizenry to ensure the viability of our Constitution. If we as Americans don’t speak up for each other, who will?
On Sept. 27, 2001,the Japanese American National Museum issued a rare public statement. Besides citing the historic parallels, our museum lauded political leaders for differentiating between those who committed these heinous crimes and those who were only “guilty” of looking like the enemy. Our letter said, in part:
“Today, our political leaders, including President George W. Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and members of Congress have made it clear that the harassment and assault of Muslims, Arab Americans and South Asian Americans is not to be tolerated by our government. (Secretary Mineta’s) experience (as a former camp inmate during World War II) and condemnation of random discrimination against Muslims and Arab Americans has touched the conscience of the Bush administration and has helped shape the response to the terrorism.”
In the weeks and months after 9/11, Japanese American community organizations, like our museum, met and exchanged ideas with Arab American organizations throughout the country, providing the public support that was lacking in 1942. Not everything has gone perfectly in the 10 years since 9/11, but our institution and our community have made it clear to these groups that they are not abandoned. We stand together with them as Americans.
As we commemorate the thousands of people whose lives were lost on that fateful day 10 years ago, including the many heroes who ran directly into danger in hopes of saving one more life, the Japanese American National Museum reaffirms its commitment to our American democracy and the role our history plays in shaping it. We invite all Americans to stand with us.
Norman Y. Mineta, who was secretary of transportation in 2001, is chairman of the Board of Governors for the Japanese American National Museum. Gordon Yamate is chairman of the JANM Board of Trustees.