Lessons to Remember From Japanese Internment

This Sunday, February 19, marked the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. On that day in 1942, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting the wheels in motion for one of the largest violations of civil liberties in the country's history. The forced exclusion of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast -- most of whom were American citizens -- and their mass incarceration in American concentration camps provides a lesson in human rights abuse that, unfortunately, the nation tends to forget too conveniently.

Even before World War II, Japanese in America were already being targeted as part of the pattern of anti-Asian immigrant hysteria that had started with the attack on Chinese in the late 1800s. Alien land laws prevented Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land, and the 1924 Immigration Act permanently closed off new Japanese immigration. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the bigotry and fear that had informed earlier anti-Japanese laws became a panic. Japanese Americans suddenly become suspected of acts of sabotage and treason. Though no such acts were ever proved, the civilian government acceded to unprecedented military orders that subjected all West Coast Japanese first to curfews then to forced evacuation into detention camps. Eventually, 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in camps scattered across the country.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the internment was how easily most Americans accepted it. Nativists made Japanese Americans feel unwanted and insecure about whether they would be able to stay; many other Americans challenged their loyalty and commitment. That the internment had little to do with the actual threat Japanese Americans supposedly presented seems clear because in Hawaii, the most vulnerable part of the United States and the site of the Pearl Harbor bombing, they were not subject to it. Instead, internment represented the culmination of many decades of harsh treatment of Asians on the West Coast, where they had never been accepted as equals or even as trustworthy.

Even the Supreme Court, which had often justified earlier restrictions on the grounds that those affected were not citizens, uncritically accepted the premises behind internment. Though the Court purported in Korematsu v. United States to apply "strict scrutiny" to the governments order, in reality it accepted at face value the military's fears and accusations that Japanese American citizens were all potential saboteurs -- fears and accusations that were concocted, that were contradicted by official government reports, and that were later proved to be baseless. In the 1980s, many Issei and Nisei survivors of the camps, along with their Sansei children or grandchildren, began a courageous quest to tell the truth, through the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. And by 1988, Congress issued a formal apology to Japanese Americans, reparations of $20,000 to approximately 60,000 survivors, and a moving, on-his-knees apology by then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to a group of elderly survivors at the Department of Justice headquarters.

Armed with the information that his conviction had been based on this false, misleading and racially-biased information, Fred Korematsu successfully reopened case some 40 years later, and his conviction for failing to heed the evacuation order was set aside. However, his story in relation to the sad saga of U.S. violation of civil liberties did not end there.

As the country embarked upon its post-9/11 War on Terror, the Bush administration soon detained between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals as part of its investigation on U.S. soil under unprecedented secrecy. Attorney General John Ashcroft justified their detention by calling them "suspected terrorists," but none were charged with involvement in the 9/11 attacks. With the exception of four individuals indicted on support-for-terrorism charges in late August 2002, no one was charged with any terrorist act. Those arrested on immigration charges -- the vast majority -- had effectively disappeared. Their cases were not listed on any public docket, their hearings were closed to the public, and the immigration judges were instructed to neither confirm nor deny that their cases existed, when or if asked.

Then there were those being held at Guantanamo Bay or, in the case of Yasir Hamdi, in a military brig in Virginia. Enter Fred Korematsu. Seeing the similarities, he filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court in the detainees' challenge to their detention, who argued that they were being held without any meaningful judicial review. In Korematsu's amicus brief, he argued that

in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the Supreme Court should make clear in these cases that the United States respects fundamental constitutional and human rights-even in times of war. These cases present the Supreme Court with a direct test of whether it will meet its deepest constitutional responsibilities to uphold the law in a clear-eyed and courageous manner.

The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the U.S. government's attempts to detain Hamdi indefinitely without trial, and Hamdi was released to travel to Saudi Arabia.

The nation's public relations position is that we are a proud nation of human rights and civil liberties. Yes, we take steps in the direction. But we take steps backwards in that regards as well. We learn and unlearn, and in the process, the bad behavior of racial profiling and civil rights abuse is reinforced. Let the dark lesson of Executive Order 9066 remind us to remain vigilant against such abuse.