A few years ago, my son came to me alarmed by a website. He pulled me to the computer to see The Last Great Stand screaming warnings of FEMA concentration camps that had been built by the Obama administration.
Hundreds of them, throughout the country, stood ready for an Obama-led round up of conservative Americans. Once stripped of their guns, these citizens would be locked away for brainwashing and “political realignment.”
Frightening pictures and a long list of locations gave the website crude credibility. Browsing the list, we were surprised to find that one of the newest “FEMA camps” was located in Minidoka County —at the site of the infamous Minidoka War Relocation Center of World War II.
I had visited that mournful place, decades ago, from Twin Falls, my hometown. How appropriate, I thought, a FEMA concentration camp on the site of one of the worst human rights violations in modern American history.
This had to be one of the many elaborate conspiracy theories swirling through the internet in the years leading up to the 2016 election.
Fortunately, it was a Saturday morning, a teaching moment and time for an immediate father-son field trip.
“Cool, let’s go see it,” I said, as casually as I could. “We can stop in Wendell on the way back for burgers and shakes.”
During the three-hour drive from Boise to Minidoka, we listened to Metallica and talked about critical thinking and healthy skepticism, especially for what is now called “fake news.”
I expounded on the differences between direct and indirect sources, rumor and fact, evidence and hearsay — and on the improbability of conspiracy theories.
We remembered the “telephone” game: a message is whispered from one person to the next, until the last person in line announces something entertainingly different from the original message.
Same with conspiracy theories, I opined, but without the entertainment. Conspiracy theories start with a dark rumor that picks up sensational details along the way, filling emotional needs for explanation — and blame.
My son humored me with a nod.
We exited the freeway at Eden and drove up a lonely road looking for evidence of the new concentration camp. The guard towers and razor-wire-topped fences pictured on the website were nowhere to be seen.
All we could find, among the bare, windblown fields, were a tiny historical marker and the black ruins of the entrance to the 1940s internment camp.
Through that entrance, under the authority of a Feb. 19, 1942 Executive Order of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thousands of Japanese-Americans were herded into captivity, surrounded by dry desert and the national heat wave of anger, fear and racial prejudice that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As we studied the ruins, we imagined echoes of that fearful, bigoted time, including some now reaching a crescendo.
Today we don’t have to imagine the the charges of “terrorists flooding across our borders!” “Muslim bans!” “Extreme vetting!” Even from nearby Twin Falls, lurid, paranoia-inducing stories were circulated worldwide by Breitbart News: “Rapes!” committed by refugees; “Terrorists!” hidden in yogurt factories; “Conspiracies!” of government officials and the mainstream media, “covering up the truth,” “protecting liberal agendas.”
Nonetheless, that day, just beyond Eden, we had found no FEMA concentration camps. None. The trip had been a success.
With effort, we had succeeded in disproving at least one of the multitude of whack-a-mole deceptions that relentlessly strain to rob the world of truth and decency.
We had also learned that we — all of us — must do our best to resist repetition of the shameful American history whispering from those Minidoka ruins.
“Next stop, Wendell,” I announced.
Jerry Sturgill, of Boise, was a 2016 Idaho Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. He has worked as a lawyer, CEO and investment banker.