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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  Utah's Topaz Relocation Center Serves as Reminder, Warning

Utah's Topaz Relocation Center Serves as Reminder, Warning

Are fears about an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero a sign of things to come?

By Jim Catano
Photo by Courtesy Topaz Museum // Topaz Internment Camp
Posted // September 15,2010 -

I just visited Utah’s permanent, 626-acre 9/11 memorial site. Chances are you didn’t know we had one.

On Sept. 11, 1942, on a bleak stretch of desert near Delta, the Topaz War Relocation Center opened for business under executive order 9066. It would ultimately house 11,212 Japanese Americans. After experiencing decades of racial prejudice and official discrimination, they became the objects of extreme suspicion and fear following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within months, Topaz became Utah’s fifth most populous “city,” neatly contained in one square mile behind barbed wire and guard towers.

In one of the worst civil-rights violations ever perpetrated by the U.S. government, more than 110,000 citizens and not-yet-naturalized immigrants were rounded up through the illegal use of census records. They forfeited their houses, businesses, farms, pets and any property they couldn’t sell or carry and were forced into internment camps in several Western states. Our Canadian cousins topped that by breaking up families and sending the men to separate labor camps.

To be clear, what Japanese Americans experienced doesn’t compare to what European Jews suffered. No one was starved, worked to death or gassed. Instead, America’s Japanese were a kind of national lightning rod—the whipping folk for national hysteria.

At Pearl Harbor, 2,459 Americans died, seven ships were sunk, and 188 planes were destroyed along with several buildings, but the reprisal that followed against our own loyal countrymen was irrational. Even the War Relocation Authority’s first director, Milton Eisenhower (Ike’s younger brother), said, “When the war is over … we as Americans are going to regret the unavoidable injustices that we may have done.”

I didn’t plan this trip and admit I’d never before visited Topaz. It happens to sit between a mountain I was climbing and a hot spring I was visiting, but I noticed something peculiar on the online map—a grid of 42 blocks in the middle of nowhere. I zoomed in on the satellite view. There were building foundations but nothing else.

The aerial view didn’t prepare me for what I felt when I read heart-rending descriptions on monuments and drove the gravel streets with markers indicating where cramped and shabbily constructed “apartments” had been hastily erected. I felt shame for my parents’ generation who allowed such a thing to metastasize out of fear. My Italian-immigrant grandparents didn’t have to atone so severely for Mussolini’s transgressions, nor did most German-Americans have to suffer so much for Hitler’s sins.

Topaz residents made the best of a bad situation by planting gardens, organizing schools and art classes and working for minimal wages on farms or in Delta businesses, when permitted. Despite their patriotism and loyalty being questioned, their sons were placed on duty in segregated military units. Their principal unit, the 442nd, received seven Distinguished Unit Citations, the highest award a unit can earn.

Now, jump forward 59 years, to when another attack claimed 2,977 lives, four airplanes, and did more than $10 billion in damage. This time, no nation had struck. Instead, nonstate combatants did what perhaps someday will be regarded as somewhat understandable, given their target’s involvement in the corrupt politics of their home countries allegedly to secure an uninterrupted supply of oil. But, in the immediate aftermath, reprisals were committed against Americans who shared a loose religious designation with the attackers. The anger flared again years later when members of a moderate branch of that diverse faith (which is no more homogeneous than Christianity) announced plans to build a cultural center in one of the cities that had been attacked.

Members of that religion are now being treated as if they all belonged to same violent, radicalized sect as the attackers. It’s as though Southern Baptists were all suspected of being members of the Ku Klux Klan, or modern Mormons were regarded as if they’d been at Mountain Meadows. But, rationality takes a back seat when facts are displaced by fears.

And to admit fear is embarrassingly wimpy. So, when we’re motivated by it, we often subconsciously spin it into something respectable. “Reasonable suspicion and caution” sounds more cerebral and rational. Seeking “justice” rings better than “revenge.” Hating “haters” seems somehow fair and balanced. And, there can be jihad—“holy war”—carried out by both sides, with even the Christians feeling sufficiently righteous and justified to commit atrocities.

So, will we be building relocation camps for other “inconvenient Americans” if another attack occurs?
Perhaps naively, I think we can do better than previous generations. Our descendents don’t have to look back on our actions as fear-based and shameful. We’re not fated to do what we might later regret.

It’s good to start small, such as by critically examining and then not forwarding some slickly produced e-mailed video that claims all of Islam is “satanic.” We can speak against laws or actions that violate the Bill of Rights (or, be honest enough to admit that we don’t really believe in the Bill of Rights). We can support those who’d build a religious facility regulated by only the zoning and building codes any church would have to respect.If we want to get really radical, we can even volunteer to help out a local Muslim community or immigrant facility.

We liberty- and fairness-loving Americans can avoid creeping back to darker times. May our grandchildren never visit a “Topaz” that our fears created.

Freelance writer and editor Jim Catano just learned that Delta’s Topaz Museum is seeking funds for expansion and that art created at Topaz is on display in Springville through Oct. 15. Visit for more information.

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Posted // September 16,2010 at 03:02

Thank you for your insightful article. As you mention, most of the people who were relocated were citizens, born and raised in the US Their parents and even grandparents came to the US during the late 1800s and early 1900s and became successful in farming and business. This was seen as a threat and in 1924, an exclusion act was passed barring them from becoming US citizens or owning land. Many of these "Aliens" had lived in the US for 40 years at the time of their internment. Another lesser known Japanese relocation camp was located near Moab. The Dalton Wells Isolation Camp held potential trouble-makers in solitary confinement. These prisoners were later moved to an Indian Reservation in Leupp, Arizona. They were transported in a wooden box with air holes, in the bed of a truck. The trip was long, harsh and in-humane for these people who had committed no crimes. In your article, you jump forward to 9/11 and the Twin Towers. Now jump backwards to September 11, 1857 to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, another ugly chapter in our history. Each century seems to have its own 9/11. Interesting that 911 the number we call when there is trouble or we need help.


Posted // September 15,2010 at 15:36

Excellent paralells between the two events, and I can't agree more with the conclusion -- that the rampant insanity over the proposed mosque is fear-based and irrational, especially in light of the fact that one of the towers actually housed a mosque so that worshippers wouldn't have to leave the building to pray. Thanks, Mr. Catano for an excellent piece.


Posted // September 15,2010 at 13:52

Excellent article. I lived through those times. My father was a landscape contractor who worked closely with Japanese nurserymen. Close friends were sent away. We are in danger of doing these things again and our treatment of felons and sex offenders seems to mirror this same attitude. When will people learn that hate an fear accomplish nothing.


Posted // October 4,2010 at 12:23 - I think the point Hubert is making is that people are often stigmatized for relatively minor offenses. Once someone is branded as a felon (even for something relatively minor like drug possession) they may forfeit all kinds of rights forever. Similarly, some "sex offenders" are guilty of nothing more than swimming nude when being seen by the wrong person. As a society, we are often too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive. Nobody endorsed rape.


Posted // September 20,2010 at 15:14 - Poor, poor sex offenders. Give me your address and I'll make and send you a t-shirt that says: I "heart" sex offenders. Actually, that's pretty funny. I'll make two. You can give the other to your favorite rapist.


Posted // September 20,2010 at 15:05 - What the fuck does sex offenders have to do with this? You must be a pervert, right? You're a sex offender?