Aug 19, 2009

Infamy Risen

Like most people I know, I remember where I was when I first heard, and I also remember how old. I was barely a freshman in high school and in the habit of turning on the radio after the shower when I was getting ready for the day. At the time a usually frivolous radio duo known as ‘Shawn and Jeff’ populated Sacramento’s The Zone airwaves which easily reached out to my nearby suburb. I flicked the power expecting the usual family-sitcom style of banter, unaware I was in for an abrupt surprise that warm September morning.

The droll hosts struck me immediately as unusually solemn. They were describing some tower that had been hit by a plane. I assumed it was something local—perhaps a radio tower hit by a small private aircraft? Whatever it was it must have been rather out of the ordinary; it was very odd for the morning DJ duo to discuss actual news. As I brushed my teeth I walked towards my Dad’s bedroom to check in with him the way I often did mornings before I left for school and he left for work.

“Did you know there was some kind of plane accident in Sacramento?” I asked.
“What?” my Dad responded.
“Yeah. Apparently they hit a radio tower or something,” I continued.
“No shit...”

My Dad turned on the television. The affirmation of my wrongness could not have been more swift. We didn’t even have to change the channel. As a matter of fact, every channel was the same: The two towers of New York’s World Trade Center smoking like torpedoed battleships. Struck by the awesome strangeness of this turn of events, I sat on the edge of my Dad’s bed that morning and recall experiencing for the first time the sensation of knowing that I would always remember something.

But it was more than just knowing that I would always remember it. Somehow I knew instinctively that everyone would remember, though especially those of my young age. My instincts did not tell me how ‘remembered’ might be the same as ‘constructed’. My life, like the life of many Americans my age, can be split up into two discrete parts. Since that day I have lived in the so-called ‘post-9/11’ world, a description of which (in my opinion) would be incomplete without fear, pandemonium and frenzy. In it, history has come alive like I would never have imagined, drawing on numerous occasions from the past in confronting the awkward horror of its own existence. But within all the scope of these recollections, no single event was so consistently and powerfully re-appropriated as Pearl Harbor (and via extension the second World War).

In the body of knowledge exploring the ‘9/11 as Pearl Harbor’ narrative, many have drawn conclusions about its possibly insidious roots. Admitting readily that these analyses are not without their own merit, such an avid fixation on this particular aspect of the narrative has been to the detriment of acknowledging and exploring opposing reifications, even though alternative narratives of 9/11 as Pearl Harbor have certainly existed. It is one particular version, perhaps the second most prominent, that we shall concern ourselves with. Though it received less media attention, it was an undercurrent that would rise apart from the more popularized discourse with an aim wholly different from that of its more mainstream counterpart. But like its mainstream counterpart, it is not beyond the reach of its own variety of failure or obfuscation.

In order to contrast the agenda of the subverting narrative, we’ll turn our attention first to the more mainstream association between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. There is no debating that in the wake of the attacks comparisons were both immediate and overwhelming, much the same way the attacks themselves were perceived. I once had an instructor who said, “Repetition is the mother of learning.” This being the case, I’d have to say 9/11 is the mother of all repetitions in my lifetime. No single event was covered so thoroughly at a time when Americans were tuning in so zealously.

There were, of course, some parallels that predisposed 9/11 to a comparison with Pearl Harbor. For one thing the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian port is almost synonymous with surprise in the United States—the word ‘surprise’ itself often acting as an informal prefix to the phrase ‘attack on Pearl Harbor’. Both disasters stood relatively unrivaled in United States history in terms of their efficacy and destruction. Even casualty estimates put them in an eerily similar ballpark. But in spite of similarities which may appear convincing, consider some specifics which helped 9/11 to become so powerfully reimagined.

The fall of the World Trade Center towers was the first significant foreign attack on America since the emergence of twenty-four-hour news networks. To gain an idea of the importance of this fact, recall that the first plane struck the North Tower at 8:46am Eastern Daylight Time and that by 8:48am CNN had already interrupted their regular programming to cover the events live.1, 2 The ensuing media spectacle provided a horde of visual analogies. These towers, which before then I had never heard of, became an inescapably pervasive smoking presence. The explosions and resultant smolderings were a concrete reminder of the ruination and danger presented by the attacks. Understandably, America was fixated.

Due to the unusual nature of this imagery, coupled with its sheer volume, it is difficult to overestimate the impact of this media coverage on assisting the narrative. In an end of year New York Times article, James Barron described the imagery as so overpowering that “the other news of 2001, significant and not so significant, already fades from memory.”3 Harold Meyerson of The Los Angeles Times remarked that, “Not since 1941, with its photographs of the battleship Arizona being blown apart at Pearl Harbor, has one image so clearly encapsulated a year.”4 At the time Meyerson also saw the effect as permanent; “The year just ending will always be identified with a single set of images—the World Trade Center under attack, exploding, collapsing.” Less than three months after the September attacks, Robert Bartley of The Wall Street Journal felt that the sensation was not only permanent but permanently associated with Pearl Harbor, “engraved in American history as a second ‘day of infamy.’” It is important to note that these observations, while reflecting on the phenomenon, also reinforce the comparison.

And clearly such comparisons were not disembodied from political implication. By the anniversary of Pearl Harbor less than three months later Donald Rumsfeld published an editorial of his own in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Memories of Pearl Harbor Day”. In it Rumsfeld compared America’s response to 9/11 with its reaction to Pearl Harbor and proposed that “there is the recurring question about whether future generations will show similar sacrifice for the cause of freedom”. 5 The editorial was published in tandem with a speech that was to be given by President George W. Bush celebrating an American tradition of “military success and valor” and “the worthiness of this current generation”. In this case ‘tradition’ presented the idea of a clear path forward drawn unproblematically from the past.

When later the invasion of Iraq was dominating public discourse, the metaphor of 9/11 as Pearl Harbor remained a branched presence in the dialogue, fracturing to include the broader themes of World War II. Even a critic of Bush policy, a seventy-one year-old resident of Palos Verdes Estates, affirmed a comparable but intensified sense of vulnerability to the one she recalled in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor:
"The threat of annihilation with nuclear and biological weapons—and the missiles—is so much greater," Nelms said. "We used to feel protected, and now you're threatened by Iraq in your own home here in California".6

Richard Land, a leading figure in the politically influential Southern Baptist Convention,7 compared Hussein to Adolf Hitler, and warned that a failure to remove him from power now would be appeasement.

Like people, narratives have feet. The World Trade Center attacks, like Pearl Harbor before, had become situated at a nexus of democracy and slavery, where hate comes up against freedom, and where perpetrator meets victimized. Paul Krugman wrote that it was natural to think of 9/11 as “the moral equivalent of Pearl Harbor, and of the struggle that began that day as this generation's equivalent of World War II.”8 Stephen Ambrose, author of best-selling book Band of Brothers9 wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “On the day World War II began in Europe, then-Col. Dwight Eisenhower wrote his brother Milton, ‘Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.’ So should today's terrorists.”10

Almost as quickly a different narrative was being formed which held a more critical viewpoint on the consequences post-Pearl Harbor World War II. Unlike the discourse outlined above, this discourse was racially conscious and requisitioned Pearl Harbor in the context of prejudice and discrimination.

After the attacks, Japanese-American civil-rights advocates were one of the first groups to quickly go to work articulating the discriminatory dangers at hand. Kathy Masaoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress said that fears expressed by Muslims on the radio spoke to her in an immediate emotional capacity. For her the link between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 lay in post-Pearl Harbor racism:
"I don't think they should have to feel responsible for all of the actions done by others from other countries who don't represent them," Masaoka said, adding that her Muslim friends have shown her a faith of compassion and good deeds. "We weren't responsible for Pearl Harbor, and we don't have to prove our loyalty any more than anyone else. They shouldn't have to, either."11

Journalist and scholar Helen Zia had a similar reaction. As a West-Coast Asian-American, she felt abnormally foreign when she found herself on the East Coast (specifically Washington D.C.) during the attacks. As she watched 9/11 unfolding, she describes herself as acutely aware that her sensation of vulnerability had to be nothing when compared to the one she surmised most Muslim and Arab Americans were experiencing. Indeed, within two days after the attacks a ‘pan-Asian coalition’ had managed to plan and hold a press conference with a candlelight vigil at the Japanese American National Memorial; a site built to honor Japanese Americans’ loyalty in the wake of Pearl Harbor and through the war following it.12

This race-critical turn of the narrative was perhaps most clearly articulated by Jerry Kang, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and faculty director of its Critical Race Studies Program, who authored a piece in 2001 which compared the lessons of ‘12/7 and 9/11’.13 In his analysis, Kang compared reactions to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and attempted to assess the dangers of race-based curtailment of civil liberties such as racial profiling. For Professor Kang, it borders on a slippery slope: “Recall that the first step of the interment process was a curfew”.14 He also argued that similar consequentialist reasonings that were used to justify Japanese interment are now being employed in the contemporary debate over the use of race in surveillance and other civil-rights abridgments.

Kang’s most damning injunction based on the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 parallels is that we should be careful about underestimating the harm of racial profiling. He suggests that such a policy can serve to perpetuate an unjust past and would likely place more Arab Americans in an anti-American frame of mind while simultaneously fueling anti-American sentiment abroad by providing ammunition for propagandists who claim that the United States actively suppresses Islam. Remember that Kang is no stranger to law, and therefore it is not surprising that these arguments recall Hirobayashi v. United States, a case which claimed “social, economic, and political conditions [regarding the Japanese in America]... have intensified their solidarity and have in large measure prevented their assimilation.”15

Similar points of contention arose between Japanese-American Democratic Congressman Michael Honda (San Jose) and Howard Coble of North Carolina (R). Coble, who was at the time chair of the House subcommittee overseeing homeland security, said, "We were at war [during WWII].... For many of the Japanese Americans, it wasn't safe for them to be on the street. Some probably were intent on doing harm to us, just as some of the Arab Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us."16 Honda, who spent time in a Colorado Internment camp as a child, quickly and publicly criticized Coble for the statements. Said Honda, "Since 9/11, there have been many, many civil liberties eroded away... Howard Coble has not learned the lesson.... When you set aside the Constitution, bad things happen."

Coble of course responded that he had made the statement rebutting a radio-caller who suggested the internment of Arab Americans, but beyond the surface of these arguments is a broadening of the scope of the 9/11 as Pearl Harbor narrative, a broadening undertaken notwithstanding the dominant political dialogues overrunning the nation at the time.

A fair amount of scrutiny has already taken place surrounding the prevailing metaphor of 9/11 as Pearl Harbor. The criticisms raised by such scrutiny have been based both in theory and in application, and I certainly would not seek to defend the dominant metaphor against such criticisms. On the other hand, it is incumbent upon us to apply the same scrutinies to the racialized subaltern narrative identified above. With this in mind, it should be no surprise that upon close inspection shortcomings of its own certainly exist.

First, without denying the existence of clear racial discrimination in either case, we should look at any salient differences in the racial trajectories of Japanese and Arab Americans. For instance, the Japanese had been the subjects of ardent racism long before Pearl Harbor, and Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was not the first example of structural racism perpetrated against the Japanese. Japanese immigration itself had been the target of punitive legislation, most notably in the 1924 United States exclusionary emigration act which, while limiting certain kinds of European immigration, terminated Japanese emigration entirely. This is not insubstantial. At the time Meiji-era Japan was so desperate to offload citizens it could not feed or employ that it scoured the globe for other locations to send Japanese immigrants such as Brazil, where between 1924 when the legislation was enacted and 1942, 200,000 Japanese had emigrated.17

By contrast the United States government had historically classified Arab Americans as white.18 This is not to imply that Arab Americans are not or had not been subject to racial discrimination or prejudice. Louise Cainkar, a sociologist and senior research fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago, contends that Arab immigrants once enjoyed a status consistent with a definition of whiteness, but that over the course of their history in the United States developed into a “more subordinate status that shares many features common to the experiences of people of color.”19 For this and the reasons like it, Cainkar proposes that Arabs as a “unique” group was a racial project incommensurable with historic American racism.20

The most concerning of all about the racialized 9/11 as Pearl Harbor narrative is the possibility of inadvertently reinforcing overly broad racial generalizations. For instance, when Jerry Kang says that there are seven million Arabs in the United states and 8 million muslims, to whom is he really referring? A narrow definition of the category would contain immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. It could be argued that referring to ‘the Japanese’ similarly generalizes and lumps a large incoherent group into a single coherent whole, but, without straying too far into the specificity vs. meaningful range debate, it’s important to note that Arab in this becomes a vast racial categorization without even the central political unity used to justify a concept of ‘Japan’ or ‘Japanese’. Recognizing this should reveal that, though it may be problematic to work intelligibly with the analytical term Japan, it should be seen as impossibly more-so when it comes to an ‘Arab America’.

And yet I suspect that the use of this analytical categorization by racial advocates like Kang necessarily broadens the category even further on a basis of appearance and faith to include people from backgrounds not historically considered Arab such as Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and a host of less well-known countries from the former Sovet Bloc among others.

What is the ultimate value of discussing ‘Arab Americans’ in such a way? One could make the argument that it is only appropriate to discuss a coherent, inclusive ‘Arab America’ because this is the manner in which the culture and the politics of the United States frames the situation for theoretical as well as practical purposes. This is an important point, and one that is difficult to ignore completely, but does not the unfettered utilization of such a discourse reinforce what University of Michigan professor of Arab studies Nadine Naber calls the “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” racial consolidation characterizing the post-9/11 world?21 Does it not reinforce a prevailing racial ideology even as it seeks to address its hazards?

National Transportation Safety Board (2002). Flight Path Study - American Airlines Flight 11 [Electronic version] Office of Research and Engineering CNN Transcript, BREAKING NEWS: Terrorist Attack on the Untied States. James Barron (2001, December 3). “The Year in Pictures: In The Towers' Shadow” New York Times. Harold Meyerson (2001, December 30) “4 Fear and Solidarity; Both the best and worst of our country came to the fore in 2001”. Los Angeles Times. Donald Rumsfeld (2001, December 7) “Memories of Pearl Harbor Day”. The Wall Street Journal. Sonni Effron (2002, September 15). “Across Nation, Critics of Bush Express Support for Iraq War”. Los Angeles Times. “FACTBOX: The Southern Baptist Convention” (no author) (2008, June 20). Reuters. Paul Krugman (2002, September 10) “The Long Haul”. New York Times. With an ironically timed extremely successful HBO miniseries adaptation released on the 9th of September, 2001.10 Stephen E. Ambrose  (2001, October 1). “Beware the Fury Of an Aroused Democracy”. Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition). Teresa Watanabe (2002, September 27) “The Nation; Frustrated U.S. Muslims Feel Marginalized Again”. Los Angeles Times. Helen Zia (2001). “Oh, Say, Can You See?: Post September 11” from Asian-Americans on Peace and War (2002) 313 Jerry Kang (2001). “Thinking Through Interment” from Asian-Americans on Peace and War, 5514 Jerry Kang. “Thinking Through Interment” from Asian-Americans on Peace and War, 5715 Jerry Kang. “Thinking Through Interment” from Asian-Americans on Peace and War, 6016 Wendy Thermos (2003, February 16) “Honda Seeks GOP Action Over Remarks on Internment”. Los Angeles Times Daniel Touro Linger (2001). No One Home, 2118 U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census of Population Louise Cainkar (no date). “Thinking Outside The Box” from Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11, 4620 Louise Cainkar. “Thinking Outside The Box” from Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11, 5021 Nadine Naber (no date). “Introduction: Arab Americans and U.S. Racial Formations” from Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11, 2