My mother once made one of those off-handed parental comments that can either fly right over a child’s head or catch a child’s attention and result in a question. I think I was about twelve then and what my mother said made no sense to me. My question to her was simply, “why?” Why did she “hate” anything Japanese? Her answer reflected a lifetime of emotional memories of Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and images of executions of young American servicemen held captive in the horrific conditions of the Pacific Theater. My mother’s life, like those of her peers in the “Greatest Generation,” was to a great extent defined by the crisis of America in World War II and what she saw as her contributions to winning that war. As with all of us, she’s also far from being perfect.
After Pearl Harbor, my mother, an orphan, joined the Navy at nineteen and became a member of an intelligence team that intercepted and monitored Japanese code. The place? Bainbridge Island. It’s significance? My mother remembers her workspace as a top-secret Naval Station and her work there as critical to saving the lives of thousands of American servicemen fighting for their lives on islands, flying combat missions, and manning ships in the Pacific Theater. Fumiko Hashida, a Japanese-American farmer’s wife just a decade older than my mother, also remembers Bainbridge Island, but with vastly different feelings for what it meant to be American during that war. For her, Bainbridge Island was her beloved community- until she was ripped from her home with a babe in her arms and transported to an internment camp in the Mohave Desert. There she was held along with her family and many others of Japanese descent for the duration of the war. For all we did that was honorable during World War II, the internment of American citizens stands as one of the worst stories of that time.
The stories of these two women, my mother and Mrs. Hashida, represent tensions that America’s children have faced since “our” Revolution, tensions among us still playing out in post-9/11 America. We Americans, coming from tribes around the world, seem to find an appreciation for each other… until something bad happens. Then, in fear, we move back into our tribal lodges, whether governed by religion or color, or language, or country of origin. In those lodges, we lose sight of our common bonds, struggles, loves, and values – and the very tenets of civil liberty that make us unique among nations. Around our campfires, we focus on our differences, finding superiority in our own tribe, seeing ourselves as protecting our “own,” and labeling those outside the lodge as the enemy. We’ve done it with Tories during and after the American Revolution, African-Americans during Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Irish Catholic immigrants in 19th century America, and Native Americans in 1890 at Wounded Knee. And today, we are doing it once again.
9/11, 2001 was set to be a perfect day at 5:30 a.m. By 9:00 a.m., I became a different person who better understood my mother’s perspectives from that long ago conversation about Pearl Harbor. That day redefined the perfection of a September wachet-blue sky for all of America. We stood in our cities and towns, in our parklands, and on our farms, gazing upward: the silent and the silenced. That day we began to move back into our lodges, turning away from those who might represent a tribal enemy, focusing on our differences. We began to go to war again – this time not with nations but with a militant band living in caves far away from 21st century America. That day, as America’s children, we began to question who belonged in our tribe and who did not.
Today, I sit on my porch under another watchet-blue and cumulus-clouded sky. The hum of a small jet heading to the local airport and the scream of a pileated woodpecker are the only sounds around me. I feel the losses and lives ripped apart years ago among families I didn’t know- and of one I know well. I think about the bottom that dropped out from under America; the fortune we’ve spent on two war fronts; the deaths and life-altering injuries of young and older military men and women now well exceeding civilian losses of 9/11/01; an economy that’s stalled and recovered; and, daily, media-facilitated, in-fighting among some Americans who bitterly disagree on political, social, and religious fronts. I wonder if that ugly, infamous day served to separate us to such an extent that we may not, this time, recover as we did when we walked away as winners of World War II? If so, the 9/11 terrorists will have accomplished their mission in ways even they may have not dreamed possible. However, I like to think that we will not let that happen and, despite our imperfections, that we are a better citizenry than that.
My mother doesn’t “hate” the Japanese today. She took a cue from former President Eisenhower and moved beyond an antipathy spawned by wars past. It’s interesting to me that the Brits and Canadians, many Tories still, are now close friends. Navajo Code-talkers became heroes of World War II, serving in the very military that killed thousands of Native Americans. In 1960, an Irish Catholic became president and an African-American was voted into that same role in 2008.
Over America’s centuries, we’ve been able to put our fear of differences behind us and, in doing so, to be better as a nation than we are as individuals. It’s this collective capability to see past our differences, to come back out of our lodges, and rejoin around common campfires that gives me hope for our future. I like to believe today’s nativists don’t represent the core of America and that we can see the difference between those who threaten us and those who, despite differences in ethnicity, religion, or color, also love what America still aspires to be: the world’s Statue of Liberty, welcoming those who come to our shores seeking freedom, opportunity, justice, and the civil liberties we hold dear.
Susan Sauer’s sister once taught history in the school district where I also work. Susan Sauer died on 9/11/01 working on corporate high in one of the twin towers. Susan’s last known written words to a co-worker on 9/8/01 inspire me to remember again on this day to honor Susan, and others like her, who represent the best of America’s children, past, present, and future.
In Susan’s words:
“Do what you find you are most passionate about,
Trust in yourself,
Leave a place better than when you arrived,
Love openly, and