In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order allowing military commanders to legally kidnap innocent individuals to be placed into internment camps. The reason they were locked up? They were of Japanese heritage.
Without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the military denied over 110,000 citizens their individual rights. Sprinkled throughout the overwhelming submission to this tyrannical violation of liberty are a few stories of resistance, one of which has risen to the surface. The story deals with a man who evaded the government’s kidnapping and thus became a fugitive. Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American citizen, refused to be taken to an internment camp, despite overwhelming political pressure and strict enforcement of FDR’s executive order.
Korematsu was later arrested on a street corner, having been recognized as Japanese, and was first sent to jail, and later an internment camp in Utah. His living conditions were a horse stall with one light bulb, leading him to later remark that “jail was better than this.” With the help of counsel, Korematsu decided to sue, and courts all the way up to the Supreme Court upheld the internment as being constitutional. The judges concluded that the government could kidnap individuals, in this case on the basis of race, under circumstances of “emergency and peril.”
The government lied and apologized
It was later discovered that the government had lied during court proceedings, suppressing official reports which concluded that Japanese-American citizens posed no security risk. So as to continue in their course unabated, government and military officials withheld important information which likely would have denied them the ability to intern tens of thousands of individuals to ameliorate their xenophobic consciences.
This naturally triggered a variety of reactions, including a reversal of the charges against Korematsu. A presidential commission, appointed in 1980 by Jimmy Carter to investigate the internment, concluded that the camps had been created because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Eight years later, Congress officially apologized for the action and gave $20,000 to each surviving prisoner.
In 1998, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor given in the United States. In these and many other cases, Korematsu was seen as a civil liberty champion for defying the government, refusing to comply, and upholding his rights. Comparisons were made between him and such other civil libertarians as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, among many others.
Tomorrow, Governor Gary Herbert will proclaim January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day, joining other state and federal politicians in heaping praise upon the rebel. In its meeting this past Tuesday, the Salt Lake County Council passed a resolution in support of Herbert’s proclamation. Jani Iwamoto, who until recently was a council member, stated that Korematsu “was an ordinary person who did something extraordinary.” More specifically, she stated that he “just knew [internment was wrong instinctively. He just wanted to live his life and be an American citizen.”
The wrong lesson learned
Many who learn of Korematsu’s struggle, representative of the struggle of so many other innocent Japanese individuals in America, also “instinctively” know that the internment was wrong. Unfortunately, the lesson that most people seem to draw from this historical account is that racism is wrong—and that’s about it. This conclusion has been evident since the events occurred. Dissenting from the majority vote in the Supreme Court ruling which upheld the government’s internment of Korematsu and his fellow Japanese, Justice Frank Murphy wrote:
I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Decades later, in 1983, when the Justice Department requested that the Korematsu conviction be dropped, they rejected the racist policies of the past and affirmed the “inherent right of each person to be treated as an individual.” And now that Fred Korematsu day has been organized, most notably in California, children are being taught about the awfulness of racial discrimination.
This isn’t bad at all—we should each recognize and reject the government’s persecution of people based on their race alone. But if that’s the beginning and end of what we take away from the internment of so many Japanese (and also Italians and Germans who were similarly interned on the basis of their ancestry), we have only an incomplete understanding of what happened, and therefore can fall prey in the future to tolerating or actively supporting a similar government action.
The right lesson learned
Ask somebody who is familiar with the story of Japanese internment during the war what trait the interned individuals had in common, and the response will likely be quick and simple: they were all Japanese. They were rounded up and locked away merely because they or their ancestors once lived in the same geographic area as other people who had attacked Pearl Harbor.
This is true. But it’s incomplete.
Yes, the interned shared a country of origin. But more importantly, they shared a fundamental trait that is far more significant for us today: they were all innocent. Not one of the individuals targeted by the government were individually suspected of having committed a crime. Not one was brought into the military camps with reasonable suspicion of aiding and abetting the Japanese who did attack America. Ordinary citizens were denied due process en masse, locked up in camps for up to four years, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards who were told to shoot the disobedient on site.
On a mere executive order alone, with nothing more than a presidential (dictatorial?) decree, the constitutionally-guaranteed right to due process was circumvented. It was justified because the nation was at war, and it was defended with lies and deceit when challenged by Korematsu in court.
More Korematsus in our day
The government may not have similarly racist policies in place today, but it absolutely does enforce legislative acts and executive decrees which target innocent individuals and deny them their rights and the due process of law.
Despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, safeguards in the Bill Rights, and a number of other laws on the books prohibiting it, the president of the United States now maintains a “secret document” that includes a list of names of persons who the administration has authorized to be killed without any due process—a “kill list.” That list has included (and likely does currently include) American citizens. Anwar al-Awlaki, a citizen supposedly guaranteed certain rights by the Constitution, was assassinated by the government, along with his son, also a citizen. He was not charged in court, and the claims made against him were never proven to an impartial judge. President Obama was, in this case, judge, jury, and executioner.
The government claims that due process can now be satisfied by officials in the executive branch deliberating the situation on their own and coming to a decision. Theirs is the final say.
Compounded with other government actions, such as the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (which authorized the indefinite detention of innocent American citizens not convicted of having committed a crime), one realizes that Korematsu’s circumstances were not unique, and are occurring in broad daylight today.
Sadly, many people who might respond with indignation at the racism and injustice of locking up innocent Japanese decades ago currently support policies, also conducted during wartime because of perceived necessity, which justify locking up (or killing) similarly innocent people. But because these individuals are not targeted on the basis of their race (though many of them are of Middle eastern descent), it becomes less apparent for the casual observer to recognize the problem and oppose the government’s tyrannical overreach.
While the kill list is used primarily to pursue terrorists, the government has likewise decreed as dangerous (and thus potential targets) law abiding, freedom loving individuals who are not suspected of any crime. As radical as it sounds, we are all (or easily can become) Fred Korematsu.
Speak up and resist
Ling Woo Liu, director of the Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education in California, stated that the lesson to be learned from Korematsu’s trial is: “don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something wrong.” This isn’t limited to incarcerating innocent people because of their race—any innocent person locked up (or killed) without a shred of legitimate due process needs our support and solidarity. And any innocent person, like Korematsu, who resists an unlawful arrest is justified.
As a society, we have mastered the art of recognizing evil in hindsight. We decry dictators from centuries gone by, we excoriate executive officers who violate the Constitution or deny individual rights, and we support those who defied such tyranny and were brave enough to resist. Unfortunately, most people practice the exact opposite when dealing with current events. Violations of the Constitution and suppression of liberty are openly cheered, emotionalism and patriotic xenophobia blinds people to the tyranny unfolding in front of them, and those who resist are scorned and considered fringe lunatics.
It’s not enough to go along with an evil act and then recognize its evilness after the fact. We each need to become better at preventing such things from happening, and supporting those who, like Korematsu, actively resist a tyrannical mandate. Americans were once better than they are at it today; James Madison noted in his day that:
It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entagled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.
Americans have forgotten the lesson. Korematsu’s story helps us remember, as Liu said, that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if we see something wrong.
There is a lot going wrong in America today. Will you speak up?