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WE CAN'T LET FEAR GET THE BEST OF US

It's worthy to note that so many themes dominating our political discourse in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks just didn't make the "important" list on Sept. 10.

The loss of nearly 5,500 lives, a disruption in the nation's economy, a military campaign half a world a way and a general fear throughout the land will do that.

One of those ideas is the new perception of Arab-Americans and Muslims in this nation. Some Americans reacted with rage to the attacks, discriminating against law-abiding Muslims or even attacking them. Others, including President Bush, reached out to them.

That's why Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's remarks before a University of Rochester audience a few days ago loomed as timely and cogent -- even though they dealt with events from 60 years ago.

Mineta is Japanese-American, and through the years has risen to become the highest-ranking person of Japanese ancestry ever to serve in the U.S. government. He was mayor of San Jose, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives for 20 years, Commerce secretary under Bill Clinton and now is Bush's top transportation official.

He's the guy who emerged as one of Washington's central figures in the nation's efforts to guarantee safety in a transportation system that failed on Sept. 11.

But maybe the most amazing entry on his sparkling resume is the earliest, the one from when he was 11 years old. The one that says: 1942 -- Resident of Japanese-American internment camp, Heart Mountain, Wyo.

"I can remember Dec. 7, 1941, very well. We were coming home from the Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church in San Jose when we heard the news," he told his Rochester audience. "As Americans, we were outraged, and like all Americans, fearful of when the next attack would come.

"We had an additional cause for alarm," he continued. "Because we knew that many of our fellow Americans would not be able to distinguish between us and the pilots flying those planes that bombed Pearl Harbor that day. Sadly, that fear turned out to be very, very real."

That afternoon, FBI agents began rounding up Japanese community leaders and shipping them off to detention camps in remote places around the country. Slowly but surely, he said, the status of his family as "Americans" eroded; racial scapegoating and fear-mongering strengthened.

"We were not acknowledged as real Americans, and the effects were tragic," he said. "No trials were held, no charges were ever brought against us."

The camp at Heart Mountain was ringed by barbed wire, he said, with guard towers placed every 300 feet.

"They said we were there for our own protection," he recalled. "But even as an 11-year-old, I wondered: why, if we were here for our own protection, why were the machine guns pointed at us, and not out?"

In 1988, Mineta authored the legislation that formally apologized to internees and awarded them reparations. He hopes the days of similar reaction over threats to America have passed, even if some degree of "racial profiling" rises to the common-sense level following the terrorist attacks.

But the secretary did not gather more than 600 people in Rochester to reminisce about a dark chapter in U.S. history. His point was more than current. In remarks that can only be described as eloquent, he emphasized "how dangerous and misguided fear can be."

"There is always one moment that will stand out in my mind, when President George W. Bush walked through the door of a mosque in Washington, D.C., to meet with Arab-American and Muslim leaders," he said. "As someone who lived through the terrible events of 1941 and '42, I could not help but wonder if this nation would not have avoided the tragedy of interning if President Roosevelt had taken a similar step."

Mineta said it remains the responsibility of all Americans to be vigilant in the face of new safety concerns. He spoke about reporting suspicious packages or suspicious characters. And the inherent difficulties in reconciling personal liberties vs. the need for extra care has already emerged as one of those themes suddenly gaining post-Sept. 11 billing.

Still, the secretary says the dangers of over-reaction lurk, even in America.

"As an American of Japanese ancestry," he said, "I have seen it happen."

It's fitting for a Western New York political column to note the passing of former Assemblyman Matt Murphy, one of the truly nice people of the politics biz. A bear of a man whom we remember as standing 6 feet 3 inches and weighing 270 pounds, Murphy will always be recalled as an effective legislator.

But he'll also be noted for the fact that he was nice to everybody. Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz of Cheektowaga may have summed that up best. "As large a man as he was," Tokasz said, "that's also how big his heart was."