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Deja Vu / After the Fall

Reactions to the aftermath of Sept. 11th.
Written for the CYNETart Festival, November 2001.
By Tamiko Thiel

It is easy for a society to be open and democratic in times of peace. The real test of a society's values comes in times of crisis, when it is under attack and people fear for their lives. We are undergoing such a test now, both in the United States of America, my native country, and here in Germany, which has been my home since 1985. I pray that we have the strength to come out of this crisis with our democratic ideals strengthened, not weakened.

On September 11, 2001 I gave a talk in Amsterdam describing Beyond Manzanar, an interactive virtual reality (VR) artwork I created together with Zara Houshmand. I told the audience how we had used this technology, developed for training military jetfighter pilots, to create a 3D visual poem about being trapped in between when your home country and your adopted country are at war. I described how the piece originated in response to the Oklahoma City, USA terrorist bombing of April 19, 1995. Initially the attack was blamed on Islamic terrorists, provoking a wave of hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern origin. In this loaded atmosphere Zara departed for a meditation retreat in Eastern California, unaware that the real terrorists were from the Middle West: the European-Americans Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Full of foreboding, she visited the nearby site of the former Manzanar Internment Camp, where Japanese-American families were imprisoned without trial by the U.S. government during World War II. If Iran were accused of directing the attack, would she and her fellow Iranian-Americans suffer a similar fate? She told me she expected a desert hellhole and instead discovered a landscape whose austere beauty was strikingly reminiscent of Iran. Even the grid of roads drawn in the desert by the military echoed the geometric layout of an Iranian garden - a representation of the cosmic order of paradise. She said that the word "paradise" comes from the Farsi word "pardis," meaning a walled orchard. I told her that the name "Manzanar" described the apple orchards planted there by European-American settlers, and that my Japanese-American relatives had talked about how internees had built gardens in all the camps.

Why do people build gardens in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a prison camp? What would it mean to be imprisoned for the "crime" of being Iranian, in a place that looked like an Iranian paradise? We decided to create an artwork that spoke of the diverse memories, dreams and nightmares evoked by Manzanar. We balanced the grim realities of prejudice and the camps with paradise gardens representing inner spaces of cultural refuge, and with images of the American Dream as dreamt by our immigrant ancestors as they embraced America and its culture, hoping that it would bring them the peace and prosperity that their own beloved homelands had not been able to provide. We built the piece in VR, a technology that enables you to navigate with a joystick through life-sized 3D recreations of the barracks and gardens. We designed the piece to alternately allow you to wander freely or to trap you in rooms with no way back, to emotionally underscore what it means to your dignity as a person when prejudice and war rob you of all control over your own fate.

I told my audience about the strange intersections we discovered while researching our project. In 1979, when Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Teheran and held Americans hostage, there were in fact cries to intern Iranian-Americans "like we interned the Japanese." Japanese-Americans felt a strange sense of deja vu as the rhetoric mirrored the same sort of invective that led to their own internment. Japanese-Americans community groups sent letters to the President warning against another breach of civil rights, [1] and were aghast when S.I.Hayakawa, a senator of Japanese ancestry known for his provocative, right-wing stances, introduced a bill calling for internment of all Iranian nationals living in the U.S. He was a Canadian citizen during WWII and was never interned himself, and publicly denigrated the experiences of those who had been in the camps. [2] We built this fateful moment of history into our piece to show that just as mere membership in an ethnic group does not confer guilt, it also does not protect against the seductions of blind bigotry and populism.

I then described to my audience how we designed the climax of our piece as an expression of the fears of Iranian-Americans today: An F-15 jetfighter sweeps you up into the air high over the mountains of Manzanar. Below you, you see the internment camp and the Iranian garden in the crosshairs. You have the perspective of the pilot and gunner, gods over life and death. War has come but you cannot tell if you are attacking or being attacked, whether it is Iran or America in the gunner sites. But in our piece, this god's-eye-view is your most powerless moment - once war starts, you lose all control over your own movements.

A few hours later I sat with the other conference attendees in front of a TV, watching endless repetitions of two planes that flew directly into the towers of the World Trade Center. We talked about how the images were unbelievable, like the latest disaster movie from Hollywood. But unfortunately very real. And thousands were dead. We heard the reports about how the hijackers had practiced on flight simulators, that they had wanted to learn to steer but not to land the planes. I felt a sickening sense of deja vu as the images from past and present realities mixed with the fantasy images from our own piece.

This time it turned out that the terrorists were not white men from the Middle West, but were indeed from the Middle East. Quiet and polite, like Timothy McVeigh. The hate attacks on mosques and those who "looked Middle Eastern" soon started. I have heard of 3 people killed in America, many more wounded. People who had nothing to do with the terrorists, whose only offense was to have the "face of the enemy." People who may in fact have been refugees from the very forces they are accused of representing. If we condemn the terrorists for lashing out and killing innocent people, what does it say about us when we lash out and kill innocent people in retaliation?

Like everyone else, I have spent the weeks since the attacks watching the news, reading the papers, scanning the Web to try to understand why it has happened and how we can protect ourselves. Zara sends me an email from San Francisco: the evening of September 21st, CNN says "more than 50% of Americans favor the idea of Arab-Americans having to carry special ID. Then a segment on what happened last time: footage of the internment camps, a very American-looking Japanese-American woman talking about her memories, photos of her as a smiling 7-year old in the camps, closing with her saying how Arab-Americans have to be understanding of how Americans feel, and her final words, 'It's inevitable.'" Ohmygod, why did they interview HER instead of the thousands of Japanese-Americans who would have said "it must never happen again?" Is "the media" preparing us all to think that in times of crisis, we need to give up our precious democratic rights, that "liberty and justice for all" does not apply to people who have the face of the enemy? I wonder how the FBI searches for white male suspects like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, when they can't just look at a person and instantly tell if he or she is a potential culprit. I wonder if the German Neo-Nazis who said, "hey, how come no one has thought of flying a plane into the Bundestag?" and celebrated the attack on America all look like skinheads, or if they disguise themselves as normal people. [3]

I think about the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned in WWII, the majority of them minors at the time, native-born American citizens who had never seen Japan and spoke almost no Japanese. How their parents were unable to become Americans because U.S. laws prohibited citizenship for Asians. How they were persuaded by the U.S. government and by their own leaders that for safety they should "voluntarily" enter what the government called concentration camps. How it turned out the sentries' guns were turned inward, not outward, and shot any Japanese-American who came too close to the barbed wire fence. I think about how all adults in the camps were required to fill out a form declaring loyalty to the U.S. and forswearing any allegiance to Japan, making the immigrant parents stateless and their native-born children sound like repentant traitors. I think about how the young men who were born in America and only knew America and who learned in the schools that America was the land of liberty and justice for all were asked to prove their loyalty by volunteering to join the Army and die for the country that had deprived them of their civil rights. How they were angry and bitter and some even demanded that their rights as citizens should be restored first - they were imprisoned as draft resisters and ostracized as traitors by the Japanese-American community. [4] How others decided that the Japanese propaganda was right, America would never accept them as real citizens, and gave up their U.S. citizenship in anger to be "repatriated" to a country they had never seen, whose language they barely spoke. [5]

I think about how the number of Japanese-American volunteers from Hawaii for the U.S. Army vastly exceeded the number from the mainland. The Hawaiian Japanese-Americans were under suspicion, just like all people of Middle Eastern background are now under suspicion. But they were not interned, they were not deprived of their rights and the young men jumped at the chance to prove their loyalty to the U.S. If you ask people to die for their country, it is wise not to deprive them of their civil rights first.

I think about how the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most decorated units in the history of the U.S., which also meant they had the highest casualty rate. How they were sent in to rescue the Lost Battalion, a Texas regiment trapped behind German lines, knowing that it was a suicide mission and they were considered expendable. How they freed prisoners from the Dachau subcamps, while some of their own families were still imprisoned in America, land of the free, home of the brave. I think of the German prisoners-of-war asking the Japanese-Americans "why are you fighting for America?" and wonder if they always had an answer. [6]

I think of how in the fall of 1941 the President had commissioned the top-secret Munson Report to examine the loyalty of Japanese-Americans, which came to the conclusion that the vast majority were loyal to the U.S., and those who weren't could be rounded up easily, as the FBI in fact did the very night of Pearl Harbor. How this and other reports were concealed by government officials and military commanders who were personally convinced that it was impossible for a person with even a drop of Japanese blood to be loyal to America. [7] How finally in the 1980s "... documents recently discovered under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that government attorneys suppressed key evidence and authoritative reports from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission, and Army Intelligence which flatly contradicted the government claim that Japanese Americans were a threat to security." [8]

This quotation is from Norman Mineta, then a Congressman and currently Secretary of Transportation, as he introduced H.R. 442, The Civil Liberties Act Of 1985. Finally passed in 1988, it paid compensation to those internees still living and gave them a formal apology from the U.S. government for unduly violating their civil liberties and constitutional rights. Over half of the internees had already died, many of them in poverty after having to sell off in a couple of days the farms and businesses and possessions they had built up in decades of hard work. But the principle of mass internment of an entire ethnic group in cases of military necessity still stands. [9] Under declaration of national security the U.S. government can still intern people without trial for belonging to a specific group from which danger is expected, claiming secret knowledge that justifies its actions. We must hope - and demand - that the officials exercising these powers right now are doing so with justice and not with racism and bigotry, as was done in WWII.

So what are the consequences of the September 11th attack for us, as member of Western civil society? Do we believe in our constitutions, our rule of law? When we are attacked by regimes that are against democracy and the civil rights we hold so dear, must we respond by throwing away those very rights? How can we protect ourselves from those who wish us ill, while welcoming those who wish us well? When refugees come to us from those countries, do we say these rights are not for you, because you have the face of the enemy? Is it possible to not only provide an example but also export the very freedoms and democracy we value so much for ourselves, or can we only export oppression and poverty in order to preserve our security and our sources of oil?

Zara and I discuss how in the 1950s when Iran democratically elected a leader, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, the CIA deposed him and installed the Shah to prevent Iran from nationalizing the oil companies. How the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-80 started when the Shah fled to the U.S. and Iran feared that the CIA would reinstall him to power. [10] Now President Mohammed Khatami, who has twice garnered a huge majority in democratic elections, is trying to reform the country slowly from within, working within the rule of law, trying to moderate the power of the fundamentalists around Ayatollah Khamenei. Is it conceivable that this country, that was the font of Islamic terrorism in the past, will show how a tolerant and open democratic society can evolve from its own Islamic traditions - slowly, painfully, with many, many setbacks, but without imposition from the West?

Closer to home here in the in the West, what does integration and assimilation mean? Assimilation does not merely mean that you can speak the language, it is also an acceptance of the society's rules. People who reject the Constitution and the rule of law, whether Islamic fundamentalists or home-grown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and the German Neo-Nazis, are not assimilated into society no matter how well they can speak the language and function within the system. Is it possible to identify people who are not assimilated and re-integrate them before they go too far? If not, what should we do with our own homegrown terrorists, since we cannot send them "back" anywhere - and can we look at re-integration efforts of terrorists from the "home" culture to learn how to better integrate people from foreign cultures?

Society has the right to demand that its members assimilate, but society must also be willing to accept and provide a place for those who wish to assimilate. Assimilation is damn hard work and one side can't do it alone. Many Germans didn't realized they were Jews until the Nazis told them so - they had successfully assimilated to German culture, but German culture had not assimilated to them. In the U.S., despite its self-definition as a land of immigrants, it took until 1954 before the very definition of "American" was changed to accept Asian immigrants. But assimilation doesn't happen and can't happen when the rights and freedoms of the constitution are withheld from you because you have the face of the enemy. If terrorists can convince us that people of Middle Eastern origin can never become part of a free and democratic society, tell me, who will have won?

  1. Grabowicz, Paul. "Acts Against Iranian Students Disturb Japanese Americans," Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1979, p. A21.

  2. Fogarty, John. "Hayakawa to Seek Internment of Iranians," San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 1980, p.1. Eastham, Tom. "Hayakawa's 'seize Iranians' plan attacked," San Francisco Examiner, March 12, 1980, p.?.

  3. Ramerlsberger, Annette. "Das wahre Gesicht: Rechtsradikale freuen sich offen ueber Anschlaege auf die USA." Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 20 September, 2001, p.1


  5. Weglyn, Michi. "Years of Infamy," Morrow Quill Paperbacks, NY, 1976, p.260.

  6. Chang, Thelma. "I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th/442nd." SIGI Productions, Honolulu. 1991, pp. 102, 104.

  7. Weglyn, Michi. "Years of Infamy," Morrow Quill Paperbacks, NY, 1976



  10. Reuters, "Teheran Students Seize U.S. Embassy and Hold Hostages, Ask Shah's Return and Trial." New York Times, November 5, 1979. Front page.

2001 Tamiko Thiel, all rights reserved.