This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
From the gravel road that surrounds it, the Topaz Internment Camp doesn't look like much of anything at all.
One sees lots of scrub brush peeking through the cracks in the soft tan clay of the desert floor, all the way to the mountains in the far distance. There's a small memorial at one corner, but from most other directions, a weathered sign is the only outward indication of the site.
It's only by looking down on Topaz, either via Google Maps or by walking around the area, that one sees the concrete foundations of buildings, laid out in a grid of parcels over a square mile. It's on those foundations now littered with the detritus of sinks, pots and pans, stove parts and other artifacts that Utah's fifth-largest city once stood, built on the Lake Bonneville desert by a wartime government to house a population of about 9,000 people who never wanted to be there.
Topaz, for those who didn't learn it in history class, was one of 10 internment camps built by the government of the United States of America during World War II. More than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast and moved into these camps, based on a policy rooted in fear, racism and political expediency.
In the panic that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Feb. 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066. In it, he gave the Secretary of War broad powers to declare "military zones" from which people could be excluded. The order's wording doesn't specify Japanese Americans, but the intent was clear and led to the forced evacuation of thousands of people from the West Coast.
Standing on one of the broken concrete slabs at Topaz on Monday, the Fourth of July, I thought about the people who once lived there.
They were Americans (two-thirds of them were citizens, having been born here), struggling to raise families and run businesses and claim a small piece of the much-vaunted "American Dream." And they did so while enduring a thousand slights from racist laws and attitudes.
These Japanese Americans were forced to sell their homes and businesses, at low rates to opportunistic white buyers, before being transported to the middle of nowhere. And all this because of a government order motivated by racism and xenophobia. (In 1983, a commission created by Congress determined the internment program had no legitimate military or security justifications.)
After walking around the site for a while, my family and I drove into Delta, a few miles east, and visited the Topaz Museum. The tiny, still-in-development museum features a re-creation of typical living quarters for a family, and numerous pieces of artwork created by people who lived in the camp indications of how the unwilling residents tried to make the best of a horrible situation.
Behind the museum is a rebuilt barracks, made from tarpaper walls and a plywood floor. I couldn't stand inside the barracks for more than a few minutes before I started sweating from the July heat. I can't imagine what it would have been like to live there, through sweltering summers and snowy winters, for three years.
Topaz is a reminder that, even in "the land of the free," Americans and their leaders can be driven by the worst impulses to do awful things. And if you think such actions are relics of a less-enlightened past, you haven't been keeping up with the news.
On the day my family and I visited Topaz on the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence my Twitter feed was overflowing with commentary regarding the latest eruption of stupid by Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
On Saturday, Trump had tweeted a graphic decrying Hillary Clinton as the "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!" Those words were printed on a large six-pointed star on a background of money, a combination of symbols many critics read as playing on the basest stereotypes against Jewish people. The graphic was lifted from an anti-Clinton Twitter user one whose other posts have included attacks on Muslims, African Americans and others.
If this had been a professionally run political campaign, the story would have died by Sunday. The offending image would have been taken down, a bland apology would have been issued and some low-level staffer would have resigned to spend more time with his family. All would have been forgotten before the Fourth of July parades had started.
But Trump himself kept the story lit like a Roman candle. On Monday, he tweeted that the "dishonest media" were to blame. The star wasn't a Star of David, the traditional Jewish symbol, but "a sheriff's star, or a plain star," Trump wrote.
Later that day, Trump's social-media director, a fellow named Dan Scavino, posted a defense of the graphic that was nonsensical in that he said in one breath that the graphic was made by someone else and in another that he chose the star shape from Microsoft's graphic templates. Scavino then spent part of his holiday blocking Twitter followers who asked follow-up questions.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, issued a statement Monday that showed he was fed up. "We've been alarmed that Mr. Trump hasn't spoken out vociferously against the anti-Semites and racists and misogynists who continue to support him," Greenblatt said.
Whether Trump himself is anti-Semitic is not the issue. It's the fact that many with such views think they've found a champion in him, and he has done little to distance himself from them. Tie that in with the things Trump has said about other people Mexicans, Muslims, women and so on and the pattern of dancing with bigots and haters is depressingly familiar.
If anyone thinks that kind of bigotry, xenophobia and fearmongering can be kept out of the corridors of power, I have this suggestion: Go to Topaz. Walk around in the desert heat, amid the spaces where thousands of Americans had to live with the consequences of their government's injustice.
Don't say it can't happen here. It has happened here.