Japanese internment camps, Japanese-American, Melody S. Owens, migrants, Niobe, Niobe's children, Oedipus Rex, refugees, sculpture, Sophocles, terrorists, Uffizi Gallery, western values
Once, a dear friend commented on something small that had been left me by my grandmother, saying, “I don’t have anything like that.” She wasn’t referring to the object itself, but any kind of material legacy. She is Japanese-American and her parents lost everything – truly everything – in the Japanese internment camps in our own country during World War II. Her mother and father, native born Californians of modest means, were rounded up and shipped off to barbed wire enclosures in Nevada, all their property and goods confiscated (stolen). Why? They had Japanese surnames and Asian features, and our country had recently been attacked by Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor. The reason was racism and hysteria.
We are facing another world crisis now, in which waves of distressed refugees and migrants are swarming out of the world’s troubled regions, fleeing the ravages of poverty and war. Wealthy western countries are being asked to offer refuge to these people, and everyone is uncomfortable. Numerous violent acts have been perpetrated by people like them. They seem suspicious – their looks are different, their religion is different, their habits and dress and mores are different. We are thinking that many of them will not share our hard won and deeply ingrained values of personal liberty, equality and freedom. Perhaps they are the enemy.
The criminals who commit atrocities lurk in the shadows like cowards. They call themselves soldiers but they lack the courage to face their perceived enemies and fight a fair fight – instead they seek out innocence and kill with abandon. Such evil is deliberate, meant to engender such deep and lasting fear that we will forget who we are, and abandon those same profound beliefs that make the Western world so threatening to them.
Such tactics are not new. As long as there have been humans, there has been barbarity, and almost no culture or region is exempt. Take a walk through the Niobe room in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and see the extraordinary marble sculptures of Niobe’s children as they are slaughtered by offended gods. These powerful 2000-year-old statues capture with heartbreaking reality the dread and horror and panic as children are hunted and killed. Niobe tries to protect one child, kneeling. She pulls her mantle over her shoulder and looks to the heavens in profound sorrow, in a pose that could have been on the cover of the New York Times yesterday. It is no wonder, in the myth, that Niobe turned to stone and wept forever.
In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a famous passage reads, “….I weep for the world’s outcasts, I was blind, and now I know why….” Lack of perception about human tragedy and failings leads to darkness and destruction. I hope I can remember, that we all can remember who we are, and how we treat people who are alone, wandering and afraid. Let us not succumb to fear and to blindness. There is no “them.” They are us.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission