By Aki Mori
Vaughn Hillyard (NBC News): “Should there be a database system here that tracks the Muslims in this country?”
Donald Trump: “There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases, I mean, there should be a lot of systems. And today you can do it…”
Hillyard: “But Muslims specifically? How do you actually get them registered into a database?”
Trump: “It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures. And we can do that.”
(An exchange following a Trump campaign event on November 20, 2015.)
Our family’s first road trip to a national park took an unplanned and introspective turn when three hours past Boise on our way to Yellowstone I noticed a highway exit sign indicating the approach of a town called Minidoka. Thankfully my wife Katie was driving at the time, which freed me up to pull out my smartphone and confirm that we were approaching the site of a World War II Japanese-American Internment Camp. Just in time, we veered rightward and exited successfully.
As Katie began following the street signs towards Minidoka, I loaded up my GPS only to learn that the Internment Camp was actually located a full hour to the west of town — we had long since passed the site. Knowing that we could visit Minidoka Internment Camp on our return trip home, we tracked back onto the freeway. In full research mode by that time, I then learned that there was yet another Japanese-American Internment Camp on the opposite, Wyoming side of Yellowstone called Heart Mountain. Minidoka’s name I recognized; Heart Mountain’s I did not. We visited both.
As Asian-American parents (I am Japanese, and Katie is Chinese) it was not a difficult decision to visit these solemn, historic sites with our daughters Midori (12) and Ayumi (9) even if it reduced our time in Yellowstone. For Midori, who is already openly strategizing her pathway to becoming a Senator, then Secretary of State, and then President, these improvised field trips were especially educational and at times moving.
The solitary monuments at Heart Mountain and Minidoka, as barren as they were, rewarded us richly with hours of ensuing conversations as the four of us drove across the fittingly and quintessentially American landscapes of the Mountain West. The topics flowed naturally and effortlessly: military service, FDR, patriotism, racism, the Vietnam War, the protests of the ’60s, the Holocaust, heroism, immigration…
Having now returned home to Portland, I find myself reflecting on the role of one man in particular. Lt. General John L. DeWitt was in charge of the Western Defense Command when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Described on a National Park Service website as having a “history of prejudice against non-Caucasian Americans,” DeWitt was the figure who masterminded the internment scheme and zealously, effectively, and infamously rationalized its implementation to FDR, Congress, and the Supreme Court. To a House Naval Affairs committee in 1943, he testified, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.”
Dewitt was never censured for his remarks before Congress. All told, a staggering 110,000 men, women, and children were removed from their homes and incarcerated into one of ten government relocation camps as a result of this man’s xenophobic imagination. Following the war, he was appointed as the commandant of the Army and Navy Staff College. In 1954 he became a full general by special act of Congress for his services in World War II. It angers me to read on a National Archives web page that DeWitt’s career never suffered from his actions.
I follow politics obsessively. By the time Donald Trump offered his comments above on the establishment of a Muslim database, his credentials as a racist xenophobe were already well-established. So I focused less on the bigoted elements of his words and more on his dimwitted belief in “good management.”
But Heart Mountain and Minidoka cause me to realize eight months later that I was the simpleton. Franklin Roosevelt authorized deportation with Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Minidoka received its first trainloads of internees on August 10, 1942, and Heart Mountain one day later on August 11, 1942. Shockingly, the identification and relocation of thousands of Japanese-Americans to these two camps were accomplished with ease in a matter of six months.
Good management — it can happen when the conditions are right.
Related reading: Midori Mori, My visit to Heart Mountain
Aki Mori began his public education career as a special education teacher in California. He is now entering his fifth year as a high school assistant principal in the Portland area. He reads only non-fiction, regrets that President Obama wasn’t more like Teddy Roosevelt, has started to pray again after having quit 15 years ago, and lives for his daughters and wife.
Editor’s note: I met Aki in 2009 after I published an op-ed piece he submitted to The Oregonian. What caught my attention then? One of his first jobs as an educator was in Union City, California — the working-class, Mexican American town where I attended school through the fourth grade.
Tomorrow: Gil Rubio, Fate and destiny