Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Sons of Korematsu

One day in early 1942 a California newspaper reported, “Jap Spy Arrested in San Leandro.” But Fred Korematsu was no spy. He wasn’t even charged with espionage. He was nabbed for refusing to join other Japanese-Americans forcibly resettled in bleak “internment” camps in the nervous months after Pearl Harbor.

Korematsu, who died recently at 86, fought his imprisonment without trial all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so he became a hero to many Asian-Americans and a potent symbol of civil rights for all Americans. Initially, he was unsuccessful in the courts. It took him nearly 30 years, but in 1983 a federal court judge overturned his conviction.

Many American think that the mass internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II is a settled issue. Everyone agrees that it was a dark episode in American history, a black mark on an otherwise beloved president, who had signed the infamous Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment.

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to the Japanese-American community, and Congress authorized that reparations of $20,000 each be paid to surviving internees. Korematsu himself was honored in 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. A happy conclusion to one of the unhappier episodes of American history.

But history does not always stay settled. Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America by Islamic terrorists from abroad, an event often compared to Pearl Harbor, the issue of ethnic and racial profiling and detention without trial has returned with a vengeance. Just another headline appeared in The New York Times, “Five Muslims to Sue U.S. Over Border Detentions”

The five Muslim men and women, all of them American citizens, had been detained for six hours at the U.S. border because they had attended a conference on “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” in Canada. None of those detained was ever charged with a crime. But for a while, they were herded into a detention room that one described as looking like an “Arab café.”

The inconvenience and humiliation that they suffered at the hands of the authorities may not compare with the more than two years that Korematsu and other Japanese-Americans spent at their internment camp in the far west, but there are other examples of more egregious violations of civil rights in the War on Terrorism.

As recently a year ago the Korematsu case was cited before the Supreme Court as it reviewed legal challenges to the incarceration of mostly Afghan prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. Korematsu filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing, “the extreme nature of the government’s position is all too familiar.”

And not unlike some of Japanese nationalists trying to rewrite history, some conservatives are taking a more benign look at the internment. Michelle Malkin argues in her book "In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror" that the actions were motivated not by racism but out of genuine military necessity.

Echoing what some of the nationalists on the right in Japan say about their past, she argues that the lingering guilt over the mass internment is misguided and possibly deters needed vigilance. Her book was meant to be provocative, and it still represents very much a minority view. The established view is that the internment was unnecessary and a legal travesty.

Last year Korematsu spoke out in an article entitled: “Do We Really Need to Relearn the Lessons of Japanese-American Internment:” “Fears and prejudices directed against minority communities are too easy to evoke and exaggerate to serve the political agendas of those who promote those fears. I know what it is like to be at the end of such scape-goating, and how difficult it is to clear one’s name after unjustified suspicions are endorsed as fact by the government.”

That there has been no mass internment Arab or Muslim Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks may be due, in no small part, to the memory of what was done to Japanese-Americans almost 60 years ago. The five people detained near the Canadian border probably never heard of him, but they are all the sons and daughters of Fred Korematsu.


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