The Untold Story of Buddhism’s Struggle in America

Buddhism’s presence in the United States is seen as a very recent, if not trendy, phenomenon, becoming most visible starting from the 1960s and 70s. But like other minority religions, Buddhism has been around far longer than our public consciousness suggests, and its history here has not always been a pleasant one.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the tribulations of Buddhists in the context of Japanese internment during World War II. Because a large number of early American Buddhists were of Japanese ancestry, the legal and social problems faced by adherents were inextricably tied what Japanese citizens and residents faced as a whole.

73 years ago this week … President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

I recommend reading the rest of this piece, which conveys the struggles of Buddhists and Japanese through the experiences of Reverend Fujimura, and looks at a little-known fight to get Buddhist troops due recognition of their faith on their memorials. Very informative look at one of the many neglected chapters of American history.

The Problem With Profiling

To this day, there are still arguments being made in support of implementing ethnic and religious profiling at airport security. As tempting as that might seem given our visceral fear of terrorism (particularly the Islamic kind), there are many reasons why this is a bad idea. In fact, aside from the obvious moral and ethical dilemmas that such discrimination would pose, many of the arguments against it are practical:

The right way to look at security is in terms of cost-benefit trade-offs. If adding profiling to airport checkpoints allowed us to detect more threats at a lower cost, than we should implement it. If it didn’t, we’d be foolish to do so. Sometimes profiling works. Consider a sheep in a meadow, happily munching on grass. When he spies a wolf, he’s going to judge that individual wolf based on a bunch of assumptions related to the past behavior of its species. In short, that sheep is going to profile…and then run away. This makes perfect sense, and is why evolution produced sheep—and other animals—that react this way. But this sort of profiling doesn’t work with humans at airports, for several reasons.

First, in the sheep’s case the profile is accurate, in that all wolves are out to eat sheep. Maybe a particular wolf isn’t hungry at the moment, but enough wolves are hungry enough of the time to justify the occasional false alarm. However, it isn’t true that almost all Muslims are out to blow up airplanes. In fact, almost none of them are. Post 9/11, we’ve had 2 Muslim terrorists on U.S airplanes: the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. If you assume 0.8% (that’s one estimate of the percentage of Muslim Americans) of the 630 million annual airplane fliers are Muslim and triple it to account for others who look Semitic, then the chances any profiled flier will be a Muslim terrorist is 1 in 80 million. Add the 19 9/11 terrorists—arguably a singular event—that number drops to 1 in 8 million. Either way, because the number of actual terrorists is so low, almost everyone selected by the profile will be innocent.  This is called the “base rate fallacy,” and dooms any type of broad terrorist profiling, including the TSA’s behavioral profiling.

Second, sheep can safely ignore animals that don’t look like the few predators they know. On the other hand, to assume that only Arab-appearing people are terrorists is dangerously naive. Muslims are black, white, Asian, and everything else—most Muslims are not Arab. Recent terrorists have been European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern; male and female; young and old. Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was Nigerian. Shoe bomber Richard Reid was British with a Jamaican father. One of the London subway bombers, Germaine Lindsay, was Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Both Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were white Americans. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004 were female. Focusing on a profile increases the risk that TSA agents will miss those who don’t match it.

Third, wolves can’t deliberately try to evade the profile. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is just a story, but humans are smart and adaptable enough to put the concept into practice. Once the TSA establishes a profile, terrorists will take steps to avoid it. The Chechens deliberately chose female suicide bombers because Russian security was less thorough with women. Al Qaeda has tried to recruit non-Muslims. And terrorists have given bombs to innocent—and innocent-looking—travelers. Randomized secondary screening is more effective, especially since the goal isn’t to catch every plot but to create enough uncertainty that terrorists don’t even try.

And fourth, sheep don’t care if they offend innocent wolves; the two species are never going to be friends. At airports, though, there is an enormous social and political cost to the millions of false alarms. Beyond the societal harms of deliberately harassing a minority group, singling out Muslims alienates the very people who are in the best position to discover and alert authorities about Muslim plots before the terrorists even get to the airport. This alone is reason enough not to profile.

I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA manhandles four-year old girlschildren with cerebral palsypretty womenthe elderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.

The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Even more strongly, security isn’t our society’s only value. Do we really want the full power of government to act out our stereotypes and prejudices? Have we Americans ever done something like this and not been ashamed later? This is what we have a Constitution for: to help us live up to our values and not down to our fears.

Simply put, security profiling is at best ineffective, and at worst counter productive. There’s more than enough empirical and rational evidence to back that up. I’ve yet to see a similarly well-founded basis for instituting any sort of profiling.