Yoshinori H.T. Himel is an attorney in Sacramento.
I spent the Independence Day weekend on a pilgrimage to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, one of 10 World War II American concentration camps. I saw the breadth of an enormous prison camp that confined as many as 18,000 innocent human souls, and I tasted the grit of Tule Lake’s pervasive yellow summer dust. Those held there 75 years ago against their will, solely because of their ethnicity, looked out of their tarpapered barracks every day, encircled by barbed wire and armed guard towers. They knew they lived in a concentration camp.
The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was the agency responsible for running these camps. It characterized the removal, at gunpoint, of 120,000 U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent from their homes, shops and farms as an “evacuation,” as if rescuing them, and as a “relocation,” as if it was a job transfer. But even the WRA separately admitted its “Relocation Centers” were concentration camps because “the ‘residents’ were, for the most part, nationals of the country operating the camp.” Last month, the Supreme Court also described the WRA facilities as “concentration camps.”
Contrary to what many assume, the WRA’s sweeping incarceration wasn’t internment. Internment is a selective imprisonment of alien civilians, defined by Geneva Conventions and a 1798 statute, with rudimentary due process and some free-speech rights. In contrast, the WRA incarcerated Japanese Americans en masse, without regard to an individual’s actions. It flouted the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and punished dissent. “Internment” is a deceptive whitewash for the WRA’s mass incarceration.
Amy Iwasaki Mass, a social-work scholar and concentration camp survivor, has explained that Japanese American victims “lulled ourselves into believing the propaganda of the 1940s so that we could maintain our idealized image of a benevolent, protective Uncle Sam.” Such euphemisms hide the government’s worst actions from its victims, its potentially conscience-stricken employees, the public, Congress, the courts and its historical legacy.
World War II was hardly the first time our government has used euphemisms to deceive. The practice began at the nation’s founding. The Constitution’s fugitive slave clause, which forced escaped slaves back into bondage, did not use the word “slave.” Instead, it obliquely said people “held to service or labor” should be “delivered” to “the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”
Our government tore indigenous families apart in the 19th and 20th centuries by removing their children for years of forced separation. Many institutions would beat children for speaking their native language and for singing songs their parents had taught them. They sought to eliminate the cultures of Native Americans by indoctrinating their children. But our government called those places of cultural genocide “boarding schools.”
In the 1930s, our government raided homes to deport more than 1 million Mexican Americans, an estimated 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens. It called this forced exile the “Mexican Repatriation,” though most of those “repatriated” were actually being expelled from their homeland.
And our government continues to use euphemisms. In response to the outcry against its enforcement of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seeking permission to build more “family residential centers” to detain immigrant families while their immigration cases make their way through the courts. By the benign label “family residential center,” ICE means what most of us would call a jail. ICE jails parents and children, many of whom are escaping violence and are using lawful procedures to apply for asylum.
“Tender age” shelters is another euphemism — “a chilling phrase we will not soon forget,” says Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Those are warehouses for children — including toddlers and infants — whom our government has torn from their families.
We must seek the truth behind the Orwellian labels. We must be wary of officials using language to evade responsibility. We must not, as we have done in the past, permit official euphemisms to lull us into silent complicity. Let’s call this what it is: violating human rights.