Our country did something terrible. We stayed silent as hundreds of thousands of Americans were taken from their homes by the government and placed in detention centers for years on end simply by virtue of their heredity. Last week — some 78 years after the fact — the state of California is preparing to apologize for its role in the historic blemish.
Those who fail to learn from history…
The year was 1942. It was just a couple weeks shy of three months since Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese, sparking the United States' entry into World War II. President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066. While the order was somewhat ambiguous in its language, its intent was not — especially from the vantage point of today.
The bill allowed military leaders wide discretion in creating what were termed military areas and excluding any or all people from them as the military saw fit. This was all to allow "every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage," according to the order. It wasn't too long before the military areas were created, and by March Gen. John L. DeWitt issued exclusion orders directed at all persons of Japanese ancestry, according to material from the National Archives. At the time, future television and film star George Takei was just about to turn five-years-old. He would mark several birthdays in the camps.
In the end, an estimated 120,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents were taken to dozens of sites and kept behind barbed wire and armed guards. What's more, they often lost their homes and their possessions, while both Congress and the Supreme Court supported the military's actions.
The camps remained in operation until a 1944 Supreme Court decision.
…are doomed to repeat it.
It wasn't until 1988 that President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which not only granted each interned American $20,000 but perhaps more importantly apologized for what happened, calling it a grave and fundamental injustice.
"These actions were carried out without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage documented by the commission, and were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership," the legislation reads.
That's pretty pointed for a piece of legislation, but it had to be.
As a country, we did this and allowed this to happen to our own citizens because, on a basic level, we were scared. We were scared rightful U.S. citizens weren't loyal because of how they looked. We took more stock in their features than we did in their words or deeds, and we built the foundation of a Constitutional betrayal on the assumption of guilt and the lie that it would protect us. In short, we believed what we were doing was in the public interest.
The language of the Civil Liberties Act reminds us we are in fact capable of doing terrible things with the best of intentions.
Yet fear remains a steady reflex today.
We were once afraid John F. Kennedy couldn't be loyal to the U.S. because he was Catholic and would try to shape the country accordingly. Today, we question the loyalty of Muslims in Congress, and we question the loyalty of immigrants who have since become legislators — in some cases those are the same people. Our current president even campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the United States. Frankly, that's the same fear that got the best of us back in the '40s, and it's a fear we should oppose unreservedly. Our country was willing to circumvent the rights of its citizens back then in favor of separation we confused for security. The words signed into law by President Reagan remind us how easily we were willing to deny the possibility of patriotism to those we assumed were our enemies. Worse yet, the mirror of history shows us that everything our country had required of those citizens was actually meaningless, because we stepped over the guarantee of their rights to life and liberty in a misguided, prejudiced and ultimately unnecessary pursuit to protect our own rights.
It's difficult to deny the need for apologies in our past. It's good the state of California took that task upon themselves, even though it's decades after the fact. It's never too late to apologize, but it's also never too late to recognize when fear is guiding us down the wrong path, and it's never too late to turn around, try again and find a new way.