In 1942, my parents and grandparents were rounded up with 110,000 other Japanese-Americans and forced into internment camps for four long years. The same rhetoric that led to their imprisonment is being used today to urge systematic discrimination against Syrians and Muslims.
Nearly 74 years ago, it didn’t matter that my family members were loyal U.S. citizens. In the fear and rage that reigned after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks, looking Japanese was crime enough to warrant incarceration. They were uprooted from their California homes and crowded into dusty and isolated camps in Arizona and Arkansas.
It was a dark time for my parents and grandparents. In my lifetime, the internment has come to be regarded as a shameful chapter in our country’s history, one that has prompted restitution and Congressional repudiation.
That’s why the tenor of the times is worrisome for those of us who still feel the effects of the national tragedy. We have seen what can happen when we allow mob mentality to triumph over rule of law. On the presidential campaign trail, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump talks about Japanese internment as a sound policy decision, a sensible precedent for proposals banning Syrian refugees — or all Muslims — from immigrating to the U.S.
“What I’m doing is no different than FDR,” Trump has said, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the internment order.
During last week’s Republican debate, I waited for the other candidates to condemn Trump’s xenophobic and unconstitutional plan. Yet their rebuttals were mild and timid.
Yesterday, it was Pearl Harbor. Today, it is terrorism.
In the face of fear, Americans are once again in danger of abandoning our national values of due process, equality, justice and strength through diversity. While America was reeling from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were presented as an immediate threat to the safety of the country. Japanese-American workers were kicked out of unions and ostracized from society. Their land and property were taken away. “Jap hunting licenses,” novelty documents authorizing “open season” on hunting Japanese people, sold like hotcakes. The nearly quarter of a million Americans of Japanese descent opened their morning newspapers to cartoons depicting them as subhuman.
A March 1942 national public opinion poll showed 59 percent of Americans wanted to evacuate U.S. citizens of Japanese origin. A recent Rasmussen Reports national survey found two-thirds of likely Republican voters favor a temporary prohibition on Muslims entering the U.S. Nearly half of all voters approved of the ban.
Due process is not an abstract concept. It protects innocent people from punishment while ensuring the right people are held responsible for crimes they commit. This system must be afforded to everyone, whether they are accused of minor street crimes or acts of terror. That’s not because we coddle those who hurt us, but because we choose fairness and justice rather than lynchings and mob rule. It is a core American value we should cherish even more fiercely in the face of fear.
Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender.