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The Boy and the Concentration Camp

I went to hear George Takei speak tonight not because of his ties to science fiction, but his ties to World War II.

Mr. Takei was just 5 years old when his family was uprooted from Los Angeles – losing virtually all of their possessions, including their home and his father’s business – during the U.S. government’s unconstitutional and unconscionable relocation of American citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. Being a child, what was a horrific trauma for his parents (and tens of thousands of other citizens) seemed like a grand adventure to him.

First relocated to a horse racing track in California, the family was forced to live for a month in a stable. This horrified his parents but for a young boy, he told the packed house, it was nearly magical.

“I could smell the horsies!” he said. “I loved the idea of sleeping where the horsies slept.”

Likewise, when the family got off the train in tiny Rohwer, Ark., and saw the internment camp’s brand-new barbed wire fence gleaming in the sunlight, young George’s take was again drastically different from that of his parents.

“To me, they looked like glittering gems strung on the wire,” he recalled.

As I listened to this man, with his strong baritone voice and his gracious manner and bright smile, I thought, What power childhood innocence has! To turn the nightmare of life in a concentration camp into an extended vacation in a marvelous, exotic land. To let memories of catching pollywogs in the swampy landscape still bring a feeling of delight 70 years later. To shield that little boy and his sister and brother from what could have been the most cruel and crushing experience of their lives – living behind barbed wire, imprisoned and distrusted by their own government.

George Takei would be entirely justified to hate America’s wartime government for what happened to his family. It was an atrocity. Yet, even though he has seven decades of life experience since those days, time in which he came to realize just how heinous a crime was perpetrated on not just his family but so many others, he does not harbor malice in his heart. He knows it was wrong, he knows we must always work to prevent something like it from happening again (as with the detentions without charge of American Muslims immediately after 9/11).

But he also holds sacred in his heart and mind that childhood sense of wonder, those happy memories that made the camp a place not of misery, but of happiness for a little boy. And those good memories, I am convinced, allowed the anger and incredulity he felt as a teenager to grow into the wisdom he later found as a man.

That wisdom came from many sources, including of course his own father. The elder Takei told his son that America’s strength and weakness came from the fact it was a democracy of the people, and had both the advantages of those people and their shortcomings. But you couldn’t have the one without the other. That is why, the son told us, we as a country must always work to ensure that we are acting from our strengths, and not from our weaknesses. That’s what is gradually happening today, he said, as states are recognizing that it is un-American to deny the right to marry on the grounds of sexual orientation. He believes this is the great opportunity of the current generation, and I agree; we must, as a nation, embrace the idea that we cannot relegate our fellow Americans to second-class citizenship just because we may not agree with or approve their lifestyle. There is no room in the Constitution for that.

On a couple of occasions as he recalled the pain his family endured during and after their internment, it seemed like Mr. Takei was on the verge of tears. I certainly was. His message, delivered calmly yet with heartfelt passion, could not have been more powerful if he had pounded his fist on the lectern and shouted at the top of his voice: This is America, and we’re better than that.