The Syrian refugee crisis — President Barack Obama has been quite vocal about America’s commitment to helping the cause. As he tweeted this week, “Welcoming the world’s vulnerable who seek the safety of America is not new to us. We’ve safely welcomed 3 million refugees since 1975.” But not everyone agrees with the president on the matter, and the terrorist threat is making the refugee issue that much more controversial.
Author Salman Rushdie acknowledges the risks of infiltrators arriving to the West among the flood of refugees, though that’s not an excuse to turn everyone away.
In a letter signed November 18th, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Mr. David A. Bowers, joined dozens of elected officials across the country in calling for a suspension of “any further Syrian refugee assistance until these serious hostilities and atrocities end, or at the very least until regarded as under control by U.S. authorities, and normalcy is restored.” Over 25 governors have made similar proclamations, despite lacking the legal authority to decide who gets granted entry to the country. (Though a recent bill passed by the House is seeking to restrict the numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees).
What set mayor Bowers’ letter apart was its invocation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision to sequester “Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor” into internment camps for the duration of the war, suggesting the ISIS “threat is just as real as that from our enemies then.” The now infamous Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, has increasingly been cited as a shameful episode of 20th century American history and so it’s baffling that an elected official would so casually deploy it so brazenly.
Above: George Takei as a child, interned at Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas, circa 1942.
Actor (and Big Think expert) George Takei, who is currently starring in the Broadway musical Allegiance, based on his own experience as a child in a Japanese internment camp, took to Facebook to rebut Bowers’ fearmongering rhetoric. In his response, he notes not only that is Bowers wrong in asserting that internment solely targeted “Japanese foreign nationals” — in fact, it made no distinction between American citizens and non-nationals — but also that indeed, just as the situation in Paris shows no signs of having been orchestrated by Syrian refugees, there was no “proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected ‘enemies’ then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the U.S. already has accepted.”
Takei has made it his mission to redress these sorts of misconceptions and has spoken openly about the way this rhetoric (not so different than that used by Donald Trump when addressing and stereotyping Mexicans crossing the border) is outright dangerous. At the heart of it is the sleight of hand of seeing the Syrian refugees as embodying and standing in for the real threat that ISIS poses, a danger which, Takei notes, has roots in the way the media can be used to generalize about an entire population.
“We Japanese-Americans are very, very mindful of the power of the media. Right prior to the Second World War, the Asians were depicted as inscrutable, vicious, cunning, and every minority group has been characterized by stereotypes and that’s been perpetuated by the media, whether it be television, movies, radio, comic books, all these various forms have strengthened those stereotypes. And when it’s inflamed by an individual or a current event, then the country is swept up by that hysteria.”
It’s perhaps a sign of Takei’s ever-gracious demeanor that, rather than antagonize Bowers, he ends his Facebook post by inviting him “to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you too,” he writes, “will come away with more compassion and understanding.”
Can’t believe this needs clarifying, but the internment of Japanese-Americans (including my parents) was not a model policy.
— Mark Takano (@RepMarkTakano) November 18, 2015
Manuel is a NYC-based writer interested in all things media and pop culture. He's a regular contributor to The Film Experience and Remezcla. His work has been featured in Mic News, Film Comment, and Model View Culture. He also has a PhD but hates bragging about it. www.mbetancourt.com