Mayor of Roanoke, VA invokes Japanese internment, says city won’t help resettle refugees

I guess it was only a matter of time before some paranoid, hysterical, Islamophobic elected official looked at the Syrian refugee crisis and decided that Japanese internment was a good historical precedent to follow.

I just didn’t think it’d be a Democrat.

David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, released a statement earlier this afternoon announcing that his city will not assist in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. It’s…not good:

The kicker, for emphasis:

I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that threat from our enemies then.

Not even kids "under the age of five," right Chris Christie? (Image of interned Japanese children saying the Pledge of Allegiance via Wikimedia Commons

Not even kids “under the age of five,” right Chris Christie? (Image of interned Japanese children saying the Pledge of Allegiance via Wikimedia Commons)

We are currently having a debate over whether an attack in a European country, in which everyone involved who has been identified so far was a European national, should lead us to close down or otherwise restrict our process for resettling Syrian refugees — a process that is already insanely and insultingly rigorous. In the context of such a debate, one may be reminded of President Roosevelt’s program of Japanese internment.

But Roosevelt is generally understood to be the bad guy in that story. Japanese internment is one of those black marks in American history that we don’t look back on all that often because we like to believe that everything we did during World War II was just and good. But it simply wasn’t. Out of sheer xenophobia, we locked up over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry simply because they looked different. What’s more, Bowers’s claim that everyone we put in camps were foreign nationals couldn’t be more wrong: many if not most were American citizens.

We interned less than a tenth of that number of people of German descent, practically none of whom were American citizens, even though Germany was actually plotting military operations within the United States on a scale that Japan simply wasn’t capable of. So spare the “but it was wartime” hand-raising; our actions had very little to do with any actual threats we faced.

In any case, it’s generally considered pretty bad form for an elected official to cite Japanese internment as being a useful historical precedent. Since then, we’ve generally tried to avoid incarcerating large numbers of people based on their ethnic background.

Haha, who am I kidding? We totally still do that. But at least we don’t say it’s a good idea in public.

UPDATE: Hillary Clinton has removed Bowers from her campaign’s Virginia leadership council.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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21 Responses to “Mayor of Roanoke, VA invokes Japanese internment, says city won’t help resettle refugees”

  1. Indigo says:

    Pillory and stocks are traditionally American, frequently used by our Puritan Forefathers. Waterboarding might not be torture but it isn’t a bona fide tradition. Yet.

  2. DoverBill says:

    Just remember: waterboarding is not torture.

  3. DoverBill says:

    I thought that the internment of the Japanese was supposed to be a blight on our history.

    Silly me.

  4. 2karmanot says:


  5. goulo says:

    That’s a very good article, well said by Takei. And perhaps (hopefully) effective that it’s not so much about skewering or insulting the mayor (Takei even apparently sincerely invites him to see the play) so much as informing about the real history and reminding about higher ideals.

  6. Indigo says:

    There’s a twisted way in which I welcome their decision to unwrap their malice and set it out there for the world to see. It’s who they are. We don’t need to use metaphors to talk about actually open fascists. They’re fascists. We knew that from the subtext. Now it’s on the surface.

  7. BeccaM says:

    I’m just flabbergasted and dismayed to hear what are now considered to be mainstream Republicans espousing openly fascist proposals, not just from Trump but nearly ALL of them now.

  8. Indigo says:

    Monstrous indeed. But we are the Barbarians, after all.

  9. Indigo says:

    Trump might bluster about it but he’d back down. Hillary, on the other hand, would probably oppose it but step aside if it passed.

  10. Indigo says:

    FEMA Re-Education Camps? Sure! I volunteer to serve on one of the Motivational Panels.

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  13. nicho says:

    I have an idea. Why don’t we put all Republicans, Conservatives, Libertarians, and Fox News addicts into camps. Then, they’ll be safe, the rest of us can get on with our lives.

  14. BeccaM says:

    I’ll say this much about American exceptionalism: We seem to have a far higher number of pants-shitting racist cowards than any other nation on the planet.

    And I don’t care whether this latest spew comes from a Republican, Democrat or neither: Suggesting the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WW2 was a good and necessary idea is simply monstrous.

  15. nicho says:

    We used nukes in WW2 also. Maybe we could just nuke the refugees. Jesus would.

  16. Don Chandler says:

    Remember ebola? Went away after the election. Republican’s are suckers for this kind of fear.

  17. nicho says:

    Many Americans developed emotional diarrhea after 9-11. Many of those still have it, and for the others, it doesn’t take much to cause a relapse.

  18. goulo says:

    The diverse insane proposals and bigoted overreactions by politicians after the Paris attack make me think that ISIS is evidently destroying the West by magically causing the average IQ in the West to fall drastically… Very depressing to see.

  19. mf_roe says:

    The Japanese internment has never been ruled illegal, there were insultingly small reparations paid to some of the surviving victims and an Apology was offered, but legally it was and is upheld by the courts. Obama is far too smart to allow it, but Trump or Clinton would embrace it willingly.

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