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> Columns > Boston Globe > We've Come a Long Way Since Pearl Harbor

We've Come a Long Way Since Pearl Harbor

By Cathy Young | October 3, 2001


The last three weeks have seen outbreaks of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim harassment ranging from hateful words to lethal violence. Inevitably, the shameful treatment of Japanese-Americans in the aftermath of another day of infamy - Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II - has been invoked as a parallel.

But if anything, that sad chapter in US history can serve more as a stark contrast to the present situation than an analogy. Today, assaults on Arabs and Muslims - and sometimes Hindus and Sikhs, in grotesque cases of mistaken identity - are carried out by individuals, or in some cases small groups, acting on their own. True, these people represent a segment of the population that cannot be discounted as insignificant: In recent polls, 15 to 20 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of Arab-Americans and/or Muslim Americans. But such bias has been roundly and vigorously condemned by the media and by top political and public figures.

In the very first days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani warned the shaken residents of the city that ethnic or religious harassment would be punished, and characterized such violence as a manifestation of the same "sick hatred" that drove the terrorists.

In his speech to Congress and the nation 10 days after the attacks, President Bush made a point of stressing that our war on terrorism is not a war on Muslims or Arabs, worldwide or at home. He asked his fellow citizens to uphold America's inclusive values and principles: "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."

Earlier, Bush made a visit to a mosque in Washington; an Islamic imam spoke at the memorial service for the victims at the National Cathedral.

On the other hand, after Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese bigotry was not only officially condoned - it was official policy. Men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing more than having the wrong ethnicity at the wrong time were snatched from their communities and sent to internment camps. Of the 120,000 or so who spent the war behind barbed wire, the majority were American citizens, and many had husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons who were fighting in the US armed forces.

Back then, crude racial caricatures and repulsive ethnic slurs were the norm in major newspapers. Today, right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, who has written that we should invade the Muslim countries suspected of aiding terrorists and "convert them to Christianity," has been dropped by the conservative magazine National Review.

The contrast is all the more remarkable because the circumstances today would seem to be far more conducive to paranoia about internal enemies than in 1939. The attack on Pearl Harbor was carried out by the Japanese military, and there was not a shred of evidence that any US residents of Japanese background were in any way involved in aiding the enemy. The terrorist acts of Sept. 11 were carried out by Middle Eastern men who had been living legally in the United States. Some Islamic organizations functioning in this country have engaged in anti-American rhetoric with disturbingly violent overtones.

And yet at this difficult hour, most Americans have not succumbed to the temptation to project their anger and fear onto the minority groups to which the terrorists were connected. Incidents of harassment have been countered by acts of support and solidarity from ordinary men and women as well as politicians.

This is not to paint too rosy a picture. For one, there still are bigots in our midst. More important, in the months and maybe years to come, we will have to face difficult questions about when some degree of ethnic profiling is a justifiable security measure in emergency situations.

A legacy of racial prejudice has long been a blot on the American dream. But in the past half-century, we have made a concerted effort to overcome that legacy. International surveys show that Americans are less likely to voice biased views about our country's minorities than people in virtually any other nation. The response to the tragedy of Sept. 11 shows that we have indeed come a long way.

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