Never again: past war crimes are not a valid precedent

You are a citizen. You speak the same language as everyone around you. You don’t really consider yourself different from any of your neighbors, colleagues or friends. You don’t break any laws or cause any trouble. You vote, you pay taxes.

But you are different. You are marked by your name, your face, your beliefs or the way you talk, the way your parents talk. You start being called names, accused of allegiance to a “homeland” you have never been to, to a place you have never known. You protest and say that no, you are a citizen, that you belong. Then the violence spreads, wars start, people die. You are blamed because all of a sudden, you’re one of them.

You are forced under a curfew. New laws are passed that apply only to you. If you break them, you will be immediately jailed. Before long, the government comes to your home and tells you that you have only days to pack up your life and everything you cannot carry, you must sell. You have to sell your car, your furniture, your house, your business, your land, but at a small fraction of what they are worth. You are herded into cramped, dark spaces with hundreds of others like you. You don’t know where you will be going next. You are given a number. You and your family are packed onto trains going who knows where and when the train finally stops, you look around in shock. There are guard towers, barbed wire, barracks, and soldiers with guns pointed at you. You who have done nothing but exist. You who have been deemed an other because of an identity you cannot, will not hide.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, resulting in the incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent. Over two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens. Five of these prisoners were my grandfather and his family. He was given the number of 900458 13001. He was only 3 years old. He and his family were living in Los Angeles, his father likely working on a farm, as many Japanese Americans did. They were confined at Santa Anita Racetrack before being moved to Rohwer, Arkansas. They were eventually sponsored by the Writtrocks, a Catholic family from Fayetteville, Ohio, to leave Rohwer. They never returned to California.

On November 16, Carl Higbie, a former spokesperson for the Great America PAC, acting as a representative for president-elect Donald Trump remarked to Megyn Kelly that Japanese American internment could be used as a precedent for creating the registry of Muslim people in the U.S. proposed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is a part of Trump’s transition team. Higbie later mentioned that the Supreme Court 6-3 decision defending the exclusion order on the West Coast was never overturned.

I was horrified when this popped up in my Facebook newsfeed on George Takei’s page, who as a survivor himself condemned such a proposition. Congressman Mark Takano (D-California) also publicly spoke out. The Japanese American Citizens League released a statement on November 17 both to the press and its members:

“During an interview on FOX News, Carl Higbie, co-chair and spokesperson for the Great America PAC for Donald Trump, discussed the possibility of creating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries by saying ‘…We did it in World War II with Japanese. Call it what you will…maybe wrong, but…’

Higbie’s attempt to cite Japanese American incarceration as a precedent for this type of action is frightening and wrong. It’s a statement intended to lay a marker for a misguided belief that ignores the true lessons of Japanese American incarceration. This lesson was captured in the words of a federal commission that said, “…The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions [to incarcerate Japanese Americans] were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

JACL believes that some of these same conditions exist today, where Muslim Americans are being singled out and unfairly targeted, and where the voices of leadership that should be speaking out against unfair treatment are not.

We must not misinterpret our history by believing the Japanese American incarceration was justified as a precedent for similar actions today. Further, we must not use the wrongdoing perpetrated against Japanese Americans during World War II as a justification for the mistreatment of Muslim Americans.

Of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the mainland, none were ever convicted of espionage. “Military necessity” was cited as the cause for incarceration, but reports were even done during wartime that stated that there was in fact absolutely no reason for the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Four cases reached the Supreme Court, who at the time ruled against the petitioner, including Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States. These decisions were eventually overturned, but it took decades. The U.S. government made attempts at reparation in 1988, paying each survivor $20,000, but this was but a fraction of the total losses sustained by Japanese Americans during the war.

While we may think that there is no way such an atrocity can happen again, the seeds have already been sown. After the shooting at a Sikh place of worship in Milwaukee in 2012, RedEye, an offshoot of the Chicago Tribune geared towards young people, published a “Turban primer” instructing readers how to distinguish friend from foe based on the turban the man wore. We all are aware, I hope, of the extreme prejudice and fear geared toward Muslims in this country, which is only perpetuated by Donald Trump and his campaign.

February 19, 2017 will mark the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Please don’t forget our history. The Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans born in the US whose parents immigrated from Japan before WWII) are dying and our history with them. What little of it is taught in the U.S. glosses over the true horror of what the U.S. government did.

Please don’t allow this to happen again.

If you would like more information about Japanese American incarceration, feel free to shoot me an email or go to the Densho Project website and encyclopedia.