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Robert Slayton Headshot

AMERICAN TRAGEDY

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Every American remembers that day, where we were, what we were doing when we heard. The attack was devastating, and horrible; it was as unforeseen as it was shattering, and the images linger in our minds to this day. Thousands were dead. And in the aftermath there was even a more fearful threat, an internal security potential disaster, of sleeper cells created to hurt America. Not only at home; our interests abroad, in so many places, were now in jeopardy, subject to attack in new and frightening ways. Even more, there was a fear, in so many ways legitimate, that our way of life was under siege; the defense of our homeland would have to be ideological as well as military.

Of course, the American people responded in a mixed manner. There was heroism and generosity beyond counting. And also outbursts, excesses. But in all fairness, the wound was raw; there were legitimate emotions at play here. And the scab kept being pulled off, the anger revived, as American service personnel died overseas. Yes, some of our countrymen did things that weren't right, but in all fairness, their antagonists were immigrants, they looked and spoke differently, and their kinsmen had killed Americans in awful numbers. These factors explained a lot of the reaction to what happened.

I'm talking about the events of the seventh of December, of course, the day that will forever live in infamy. Yet the parallels to our more recent heartbreak are striking. Then, as now, we experienced a terrifying attack, out of the blue, by an enemy we did not know, did not understand. So many American died that day, and as the violence of war ramped up, hundreds of thousands more would make that devastating sacrifice, just as now, young men defend our country in overseas places.

The Japanese were seen as demons, violent advocates of a way of life that sought to make slaves of every citizen who saluted our flag, whether they lived at home or overseas. Magazines, movies, every kind of media pushed this point home. The cinema depicted Japanese as bucktoothed monsters lusting after white women, while Time ran an infamous piece entitled, "How to Tell Our Friends From the Japs," helpfully illustrating the racial differences between the typical Chinese man and a son of Nippon. There were also enormous fears of a fifth column, of Japanese agents bombing the Panama Canal, or signaling to their submarines, waiting to launch high explosives at our shores. While most of this was exaggerated, the Japanese military had, in fact, been surveilling our interests in various locations, just as every nation did to its potential enemies; the foremost operation of this kind in America, for example, was that run by the Abwehr, the Wehrmact's intelligence arm. All of this took place in an atmosphere of hate and passion, real emotions kindled by our blood in the Pacific.

Yet, today, most Americans still feel that we went too far in our responses. Instead of using our own counter-espionage and law enforcement to defeat these threats, we instituted a mass, indiscriminate approach. Everyday Americans, as well as the authorities, labeled all Japanese-American a menace, regardless of their record or behavior. In short time, this population was even removed from public life for the duration.

Today, once again, we have undergone a monstrous attack. Wounds are still open, and as they were for the Pearl Harbor generation, always will be for some. And those scars are real, based on tragic, painful events.

But let us not repeat the outrages of the past, let us not repeat acts of unthinking anger that future generations, our grandchildren, will have to apologize for. In 1942 there were some citizens who believed that the term "Japanese-American" was synonymous with "traitor". Today, some of our people feel the terms "Muslim-American" and "terrorist" are identical. Neither analogy is accurate, neither brings our country honor. It does not serve this country to render up mass, unthinking indictments that future American schoolchildren will renounce, just as today's students show interest in World War II, but condemn the internment of Japanese-Americans. Let us live up to our ideals, not to the nightmares.

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