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Korematsu, Trump and the Banality of Evil

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Monday was Fred Korematsu's birthday. The brave twenty-three year old who in 1942 refused to be interned by the U.S. government alongside 120,000 other Japanese Americans has been on my mind. It is not simply because he was the featured doodle for Google. And not just because Trump's executive orders to ban individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries-- evoking Executive Order 9066 challenged by Korematsu -- have been in the news. I have been thinking about him because an incident from my own past has been haunting me.

In my Advanced Placement (AP) American History class at my magnet high school in Montgomery, Alabama in 1986, twenty-four of my twenty-five classmates voted to intern a fellow Indian-American student and me. Our teacher--my favorite--asked the class of eleventh graders whether we two girls should be jailed if the U.S. were at war with India simply because of our ethnicity. And, mind you, she did not ask it in order to instill in her students sympathy or critical thinking skills. She did it to justify what was done to Japanese Americans by their own government forty-four years earlier. She thought it was the right move in a dangerous time. And all except one, my African American friend Wanda, agreed with her.

Definition of BANALITY [Merriam-Webster]
plural banalities
1. 1: something that lacks originality, freshness, or novelty : something banal : COMMONPLACE
2. 2: the quality or state of lacking new or interesting qualities : the quality or state of being banal

The Banality of Evil. It is the time and place in which we are living. And it is critical phrasing of the subtitle of Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, about the man who coordinated the deportations of the Jews from throughout Europe to the killing centers we call concentration camps. Arendt gives us a detailed account of Adolph Eichmann's life and in doing so, shows us that he was not a psychopath or sociopath, but an average man who assumed extraordinary power to bring about tremendous destruction and loss of life. In his defense, Eichmann said only, "I was only following orders."

It is likely that Donald J. Trump is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath. He and Steve Bannon are ordinary men who now have extraordinary power to bring about tremendous destruction. And Reince Priebus, the Chief of Staff, is simply following orders. Jeff Sessions (but not Sally Yates) and Rex Tillerson and James Mattis and John Kelly are also only following orders as they work diligently to refuse entry into the U.S to hundreds, if not thousands of Muslims with green cards and student visas and refugee clearance.

Evil has become banal. Can resistance be? Can we make activism commonplace? We MUST. After only the first week of the Trump administration, many of us are already tired and weary. But, we cannot rest. We must hold our elected officials accountable. As the must-read toolkit Indivisible: The Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda tells us, we absolutely can make a difference through strategic, targeted actions. This includes targeting both Democrats and Republicans; none should feel secure in their current positions of power, not even if they reside in safe districts or states. They should know we are watching them and planning to run candidates who oppose them if they vote against our communities and our interests. The 2014 defeat of Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority Leader, is evidence that no member of Congress is immune to challenge and defeat by a loud electorate. And we should remind them that populism--support for the concerns of ordinary people-- comes not only from the Right, but also from the Left.

And it is time that our supposed leaders follow us. For too long, we have been constrained by their procedures, their DC decorum, and their traditions, which were created to keep many of us--women, people of color, LGBTQ, and immigrants-- powerless. Meanwhile, we have been consumed, out of necessity, with our careers, our children, our families. But, now, as we do our jobs, feed our kids (and our pets) and take care of our parents, let us also be consumed by our futures.

In that classroom in Montgomery, Alabama thirty-one years ago, the vast majority of my fellow students had no problem supporting the commission of inhumane acts and unconstitutional policies in a hypothetical vote. It is likely that they and perhaps even a majority of Americans would now support a real life internment of Indian Americans, or Mexican Americans, or _____ (fill in the blank). And they may support mass deportations of immigrants. And a Muslim registry. Unless each and every one of us resists, these atrocities will surely become a reality.

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.

Thomas Jefferson