(David Neiwert blogs at Orcinus)
The elderly gentleman had a stack of file folders full of clippings he had obviously brought with him, and he thumbed through these on the table where he had taken a seat, waiting for my talk.
His clippings caught my eye, as did the man himself. The talk I was giving was to promote my most recent book, Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community, at the historic old Panama Hotel in Seattle's International District (this was in July of 2005). Most of the other patrons that evening were Japanese Americans; a number of them were elderly Nisei who had been interned at "relocation centers" during World War II, and some of these were people I had interviewed in the process of writing the book.
This man, however, was an elderly Caucasian, and it was apparent shortly after finishing my brief talk, when I opened up the floor to questions, that he was there to defend the internment as justifiable. He was obviously familiar with the arguments offered by such historical revisionists as Lillian Baker, David Bowman, and Michelle Malkin, and proceeded to attack the book's thesis.
I was somewhat prepared for this, and gladly answered his questions with what I think were accurate and succinct responses that refuted his underlying assumptions (like most revisionists, he continually ignored the distinction between American citizens and Japanese nationals). I could see that the rest of the audience was growing agitated by his persistent willingness to assume their guilt as potential traitors, the same assumption that resulted in their incarceration.
He finally stepped in it, however, when he attacked my consistent use of the term "concentration camps" to describe the so-called ten "relocation centers" that held some 120,000 internees. (There has been some ongoing discussion of exactly what terminology to use to describe the Japanese American "internment"; currently, most historians favor using "internment camps" to describe the military camps that held a number of "enemy aliens" swept up in Justice Department arrests shortly after the outbreak of war, while the "relocation centers" — a bureaucratic euphemism concocted by architects of the evacuation — are more accurately described either in terms of the incarceration they represented, either as "prison camps" or "concentration camps.")
"You shouldn't call them concentration camps," he said. "We weren't starving people to death or murdering them in gas chambers. Calling them that makes people think that's what went on there."
Well, I responded, what you're describing is properly called a death camp. "Concentration camp" was a term created, during the Boer War, to describe the mass prison camps the British erected to incarcerate Boer families. It has been used consistently afterward to describe these kinds of arrangements, including by both Franklin Roosevelt and Attorney General Biddle, in official documents, to describe the Japanese American camps.
It was at this point, however, that several of the elderly internees in the audience nearly came out of their seats; they were shaking with anger.
"If that wasn't a concentration camp, I'd sure like to know what the hell it was," said one of them, a Nisei man. "I was there. I saw the armed guards in the watchtowers, the barbed wire."
"That barbed wire was just a line in the sagebrush," the skeptic retorted. "You could have walked over it at any time."
"Yes, and we'd have been shot the moment we tried," said the Nisei. "You have no idea what we had to endure. You weren't there."
Other audience members jumped in, demanding to know how he could distort the reality of the camp experience of their own memories, especially as he tried to depict the camps essentially as vacation camps with golfing and nice schools. I let them argue for awhile — it was more of a verbal dogpile, actually — and then finally stepped in verbally and moved on to other questions and questioners. My elderly interlocutor, looking nonplussed, packed up his clippings and left.
The whole incident underscored for me the way we let invented terminologies disguise and distort the reality of the things we do. It's an easy way of softening it — because we just don't like looking that reality in the face.
We slaughter thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens in the process of dislodging their dictator, and call it "collateral damage." We stand by as thousands more are slaughtered in the name of ancient hatreds, in places like Rwanda and Darfur, and we name it "ethnic cleansing."
We've done it throughout history. We stole land from the native Americans and murdered them relentlessly, and called it "Manifest Destiny." We lynched thousands of African Americans under the rubric of an imagined threat of rape and called it "defending white womanhood," while driving out thousands more from our communities and calling it "defending our way of life."
And we put 120,000 people behind barbed wire under armed guard and called it a "relocation center." Nowadays, we have a new name for it: the "family detention center" or, better still, the utterly neutral "residential center."
Photo of Manzanar Relocation Center by Dorothea Lange, 1943.