Two months after Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment hit a thundering peak in the U.S. To many, Japanese Americans had become enemy aliens whose presence represented a real threat to national security. As The New York Times reported last year, this was a mainstream argument at the time, not some fantastical fringe fiction.
On February 22, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which declared certain parts of the country military zones. This order set the stage for the “evacuation” of Japanese-Americans. Some 120,000 would be interned in camps before the end of World War II. Most were citizens, and they were loyal to the United States.
Actor George Takei was one of them, long before he became famous for his role on “Star Trek.” He described his experiences in a 2014 interview with Democracy Now!
“We had nothing to do with the war. We simply happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor,” Takei said. “But without charges, without trial, without due process – the fundamental pillar of our justice system – we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps – prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us – in some of the most desolate places in this country: the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, the blistering hot desert of Arizona, of all places, in black tarpaper barracks.”
In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roosevelt’s executive order. Its decision in Korematsu v. United States has since been condemned as a profound injustice; so too has internment itself.
According to The Times, a 1982 congressional commission blamed internment on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
That prejudice, it added, predated Pearl Harbor. “The ethnic Japanese, small in number and with no political voice – the citizen generation was just reaching voting age in 1940 – had become a convenient target for political demagogues, and over the years all the major parties indulged in anti-Japanese rhetoric and programs,” it stated. Religious differences also contributed to tension, according to the report.
Sound familiar? It should.
Yesterday, presidential hopeful Donald Trump announced that if elected, he’ll ban Muslims from entering the country. Border officials would ask travelers if they were Muslim, and if they said yes, they would not be permitted to enter the country, he explained.
Trump has since attempted to carve out some loopholes for Muslim athletes, world leaders and members of the armed services, but he hasn’t backed down from the gist of his initial statement. He has no reason to, really: According to the BBC, his supporters cheered the proposal at a South Carolina rally last night.
Trump’s New Hampshire campaign chair, State Rep. Al Baldasaro (R), agreed with him, saying, “What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps.” When a Time reporter asked Trump himself for his opinion on the internment of Japanese-Americans, he refused to condemn it. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer. I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer,” he said.
To support his position, Trump cited a shaky poll from Frank Gaffney’s far-right and anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy that purportedly shows that a quarter of American Muslims support violence against non-Muslims “as part of global jihad.” Experts called Gaffney’s methodology into question, but this did not deter Trump.
Trump’s proposal simply takes anti-Muslim rhetoric to its logical conclusion. He has already suggested forcing American Muslims to register in a national database, much to the delight of his followers.
The problem with Trump and those who follow him is that their central premise is irredeemably flawed. They assume that all Muslims are violent and seek to engage in acts of terror. In fact, Muslims have lived peacefully in the U.S. for hundreds of years. As historian Peter Manseau noted in his recent book, One Nation Under Gods, many were brought to this country in chains. Others came later. They came as refugees, fleeing war zones. They came here for education, for jobs and yes, for religious freedom – just as my own ancestors did over three hundred years ago.
Yes, some Muslims commit depraved acts in the name of their religion. So do some Christians. Extremism is not the singular province of any single religion or rigidly held belief. We cannot end extremism by excluding an entire religious group from our borders.
It’s likely Trump knows this. The First Amendment clearly prohibits the application of any religious test to our immigration procedures. His proposal is a fantasy, but it’s a popular one, and that’s really why it’s so troubling.
We can’t afford another Korematsu. We should instead look to the Bill of Rights, and remember its guarantee of religious freedom applies to everyone and to all religions. It’s the only way to prevent ourselves from repeating a shameful episode of history.