In his opinion upholding President Trump’s travel ban this week, Chief Justice John Roberts took an opportunity to right a historical wrong that had somehow eluded his predecessors. Almost as an aside, writing on behalf of the court’s conservative majority and the soon-to-be-deeply-missed Anthony Kennedy, Roberts emphatically threw out the high court’s ignominious ruling against Fred Korematsu, 20 years after President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
If you don’t know much about Korematsu or his agonizing, decades-long resistance against the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942, here’s a short piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine after his death in 2005.
Roberts’s condemnation of the court’s ruling — coupled with Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dueling reference to it in her sharply dissenting opinion — added to a suddenly contentious discussion about the internment, after decades of virtual silence.
Voices on the left have been comparing the disgraceful caging of children on the southern border to the internment, as did Laura Bush, the former first lady.
Even some prominent Japanese-Americans have declared Trump’s policy to be essentially equivalent, or worse. The actor and activist George Takei, writing in the journal Foreign Policy, made the point that even though he was thrown into an internment camp as a child, at least the government allowed him to stay with his parents.
In last week’s column on the administration’s policy, I noted, parenthetically, that while images of the camps in Texas may evoke long-dormant memories of 1942, what Trump is doing now really doesn’t compare in any substantive way to what Franklin Roosevelt did then, which will forever stain his presidential legacy.
(Chiseled into a stone at the sprawling FDR Memorial in Washington is a quote from Roosevelt that reads, in part: “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background.” That the designers thought this fitting is a testament to how readily we reimagine history when it suits our purposes.)
Anyway, my brief observation about the difference between then and now provoked a small eruption of fury in my inbox and on social media, where readers on the left — some of them my friends — accused me of excusing Trump’s persecution of helpless children. In their mind, I guess, to say the current policy isn’t nearly as egregious as the internment is to somehow deny that it’s wrong at all. (Which, by the way, I think it is.)
This is a difficult argument to have, but I think it’s actually important — as a matter of both history and practical politics.
First, some absurdly quick history for those who may not have studied it very carefully. In 1942, following the surprise invasion of Pearl Harbor, the Roosevelt administration, by executive order, rounded up more than 100,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent and threw them into 10 hastily built internment camps, where most of them remained for the duration of the war.
The bulk of those families, unable to tend land or pay taxes, ultimately lost everything they had — houses, farms, careers and a sense of belonging.
(In case you were wondering, Trump, during his campaign for the White House, refused to say in interviews whether he might have supported the internment at the time or even whether it violated American values.)
Admittedly, this is somewhat personal for me. I wrote many years ago about my late father-in-law, who fought ferociously for a segregated regiment of Japanese-American soldiers, earning a Purple Heart cluster while his family remained imprisoned. My mother-in-law spent her high school years in the notorious camp at Manzanar.
And by the way, while I admire Takei and wouldn’t dare presume to understand his experience, it’s not the case that families weren’t separated during the internment. My wife’s grandfather was taken away by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor, for reasons never stated or known, and didn’t see his five children for 18 months.
On the facts alone, rather than as a matter of imagery, the internment was a qualitatively different thing from what we’re seeing today. It’s not simply the scale of it that defies comparison, but more pointedly the fact that the vast majority of internees then were American citizens, entitled to all the same rights and constitutional protections as the rest of us.
The government simply shredded these rights, out of a hysteria that even some government lawyers admitted was entirely unfounded. And until this week, to its eternal shame, the nation’s highest court went along.
Now, to be clear, no form of government-sanctioned persecution is tolerable if we’re to live up to basic American ideals. But there’s a distinction, nonetheless, between our promise to law-abiding citizens who have full rights under the law, on one hand, and what we owe would-be immigrants streaming across the border on the other. It’s just not the same.
Some of the thoughtful correspondents who disagree with me about this make a strictly legal argument; they note that judges have often extended the same basic protections to immigrants on American soil as they do to citizens. Just this week, in fact, a federal judge in California ruled the Trump detention policy to be illegal.
More generally, though, those who insist on equating 1942 and today seem to be saying that citizenship is an arbitrary designation, morally speaking. Basic human rights belong to everyone.
Thus, if the American government has thrown you into prison without due cause, whether you were born in California in 1930 or in Nicaragua in 2007, it’s pretty much the same thing, and it’s heartless and small-minded of me to draw a distinction.
I have a couple of problems with this line of reasoning.
For one thing, pragmatically speaking, you really can’t win the debate over immigration policy if you don’t think citizenship — that is, being born here — really counts for something.
Yes, most Americans clearly favor a compassionate immigration system. They’re with you on that, and they don’t buy into Trump’s neo-nativism and demagoguery.
But they also believe that their rights and security should come first, that borders have to mean something, that we can’t just let everybody into the country because somehow all humans are entitled to the same protections.
When you stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the distinction between imprisoning citizens because of their lineage (as we did in 1942) and locking up foreigners who turn up at the border (as we’re doing now), you’re setting yourself up to lose the larger argument. You’re saying that the way we treat American citizens isn’t more important, legally or morally, than the way we treat anyone else.
Stepping back from the immigration debate, though, I worry for the culture when nothing that happens can be just bad or wrong, but instead has to approximate the most horrible thing that’s ever happened, because we’ve become a self-absorbed, amnesiac stratum of elites who have to see ourselves at the white-hot center of history every minute of the day.
This is true on both the left and right. It’s not enough that Trump’s immigration policy is cruel and dehumanizing; it has to resemble in every way the cruelest and most dehumanizing thing the American government ever did (outside of slavery or the Trail of Tears, anyway).
It’s not enough for a Trump lackey like Anthony Scaramucci (yeah, they’re still putting this guy on TV) to condemn the protesters who show up at a Mexican restaurant to mock a Cabinet member while she’s eating dinner; he has to declare that liberals are using tactics “right out of Joseph Goebbels’ playbook.” (Because if there’s anything the Nazis stood for, it was heckling people at Mexican restaurants.)
A society that obliterates all nuance is bound to cheapen its history, and everyone else’s too.
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