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?

click to enlarge Topaz Internment Camp - COURTESY TOPAZ MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Topaz Museum
  • Topaz Internment Camp

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 TopazMuseum.org for more information.

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Jim Catano

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