As a sitting Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens was attentive to the symbolic meaning of things. As recently as April, in the "cross in the desert" case Salazar v. Buono, Stevens wrote, "Making a plain, unadorned Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial sectarian."
On Thursday the now-retired justice delivered a speech reflecting on the symbolism of another war memorial and on the recent controversy over building an Islamic cultural center that includes a mosque near ground zero in New York City. In the process, the World War II veteran confessed that he too had once reacted emotionally when he saw Japanese tourists visiting the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, where he served for more than two years during the war.
It was in 1994, more than 50 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but still Stevens said that after seeing the Japanese tourists there, "several thoughts flashed through my mind." He recalled thinking, "Those people don't really belong here. We won the war, they lost it. We shouldn't allow them to celebrate their attack on Pearl Harbor."
But on further reflection, Stevens said he realized that the tourists might have been there for a range of reasons, including to reflect on "how horrible all wars are to all who participate in them." Stevens added, "Most significantly, I realized that I was drawing inferences about every member of the tourist group that did not necessarily apply to any single one of them. We should never pass judgment on barrels and barrels of apples just because one of them may be rotten."
Stevens drew a connection from his experience at the USS Arizona memorial to those who react emotionally and negatively to Muslims building a mosque near Ground Zero. "The Japanese tourists were not responsible for what some of their countrymen did decades ago; the Muslims planning to build the mosque are not responsible for what an entirely different group of Muslims did on 9/11."
Stevens was speaking before the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation on the 10th anniversary of the creation of a memorial -- which stands not far from the Supreme Court -- that recognizes the contribution of Japanese Americans to the U.S. war effort in World War II, while also calling attention to the internment of Japanese Americans during the war, a program the Supreme Court upheld.
Stevens called that feature of the memorial "a monument to stupidity" because thousands of American citizens were held in camps without any due process and without any evidence that it was needed.
"Guilt by association is unfair," Stevens concluded. "The monument teaches us that it is profoundly unwise to draw inferences based on a person's membership in any association or group without first learning something about the group. Its message is a powerful reminder of the fact that ignorance -- that is to say, fear of the unknown -- is the source of most invidious prejudice."