Circle of Compassion

By Hannah Lee 

After the tragedy of 9-11, Kermit Roosevelt explored how a country could become gripped by fear and panic.  A law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s written Allegiance, a sophisticated legal thriller that plunges readers into the debate within the U.S. government surrounding the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (between 110,000-120,000) during World War II.

A former clerk for the Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Roosevelt delved into the political machinations and intrigue over the Japanese internment.  I learned from the book about the pro-Japanese extremist group, the Hoshi Dan, who pressed their brethren for renunciation of American citizenry and why so many of the inmates failed the loyalty test (30% refused military service and almost 16% refused to disavow loyalty to Japan).

The Nisei who were born here faced the prospect of being separated from their parents.  Their parents could not answer positively, as they were still citizens of Japan (and not allowed to be naturalized by an act of Congress), so they’d be committing treason.  Also, they thought the questions were a trick: if they disavowed loyalty to Japan, does that mean they’d previously supported the Emperor?

While reading the book, I thought of our fellow Jews who send their children to study in Israel (a claim of disloyalty made against the Japanese), volunteer for the Israeli Defense Force, and even raise money for equipment for the Israeli soldiers.  What would happen when Israel is labelled an enemy nation in some future war?

At the author’s presentation at Main Point Books, a woman came who was born into one of the worst of the Japanese internment camps, Tule Lake in rural California.  I asked her if the adults reacted differently from the children and she said that she has not met any adults who retained any resentment.  She quoted a Japanese phrase which translates as “It cannot be helped.”  This sounds Buddhist in philosophy, and a healthy perspective that allowed the Japanese to seek a life in this country after World War II.

I marveled at the diverse role of real Jews in the narrative: Federal Judge Louis E. Goodman who presided over the July, 1944 criminal trial of 26 Japanese-American young men who were drafted from the internment camps and refused to serve.  Goodman dismissed the federal charges on the grounds that men were living with duress and restraint, so they cannot be compelled to serve or to be prosecuted for their unwillingness to serve.  Other prominent Washington Jews, however, were not concerned with the plight of the Japanese-Americans, including Herbert Weschler, then Assistant Attorney General.  Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter operated on the belief that supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who’d picked eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices) was the surest way to end the War and end the suffering of all. 

In preparation for the writing of Allegiance, Kermit Roosevelt (a great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, and thus also a relative of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) also researched the psychology of empathy and what conditions promote compassion.  To his surprise, one key factor is the reading of fiction, that is reading narratives that open a window into other people’s lives and broaden what the late Attorney General Francis Biddle called the “circle of compassion.”  After all, the instinctive reaction to fear is to draw lines of safety.  Anyone outside these lines are deemed “not-like-us,” suspicious, and potentially dangerous.  In the worst historical incidents, the Other is characterized as Not Human Like Us.

The world seems smaller than ever, through the Internet and global travel and migration.  Do we enlarge our circle of compassion or do we circle the wagons and withdraw within?  Kermit Roosevelt has written a sensitive portrait of a young man, raised in the insular lap of privilege of the Main Line of the 1940s, who gradually develops a broader view of humanity.  The protagonist, Caswell Harrison, becomes a fuller human being when he learns the capacity to imagine the suffering of others so unlike him and he sought a role in their aid.

Happy Election Day!  Go and exercise your right and obligation as a citizen of the United States.