A cemetery at the Manzanar Relocation Center holds the graves of Japanese American World War II detainees who died there. / SF
Jay Hirabayashi was surprised that Obama does not see the paradox in his support of a policy that “basically repeats a period of history that we don’t want to repeat.”
In awarding a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gordon Hirabayashi in May, President Obama spoke of the courage of the University of Washington student who refused an executive order to be among the 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. Obama expressed his admiration for Hirabayashi as a champion of civil rights.
“In Gordon’s words, ‘It takes a crisis to tell us that unless citizens are willing to stand up for the (Constitution), it’s not worth the paper it’s written on,’ ” Obama said at a White House ceremony. “And this country is better off because of citizens like him who are willing to stand up.”
The president’s words were poignant, appropriate – and in direct contradiction with his own administration’s insistence on a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes the U.S. military to indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, without due process if the government suspects them of supporting terrorism.
Neither Obama, his predecessor George W. Bush nor the U.S. Congress has shown a willingness to stand up for due process and civil liberties on this issue. Just this week, a House-Senate conference committee preserved the government’s ability to detain people indefinitely without trial in the latest version of the bill.
So who will stand up for the Constitution in this challenge to its cherished principles?
Count the children of Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui among those who see the dangers of giving government an unchecked ability to deprive Americans of their freedom in the name of national security.
Children of those three American heroes – whose convictions for defying the military orders were overturned 40 years later, after it was discovered that the government suppressed and destroyed evidence – have added their voices to a lawsuit (Hedges vs. Obama) challenging the constitutionality of a law that allows the U.S. government to detain, indefinitely if it so deems, “enemy combatants” suspected of cooperating with or supporting terrorists. That case is working its way through the appeals process in federal court in New York. The latest order keeps the indefinite-detention law intact during the appeals process.
“Here we are, almost 70 years later … what safeguards do we have in place?” said Karen Korematsu, daughter of the late Oakland man who initially lost his case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944.
A 29-page brief in opposition to the detention law was filed this week on behalf of Korematsu and seven other children of the three men who resisted the internment-camp order. The upshot of their argument: We must learn from the mistakes of the past, such as the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “History reveals that in times of national distress the government has too often reacted excessively,” it noted. It can happen again in the absence of constitutional protections.
The brief, said Korematsu, was “in keeping with my father’s legacy and what he believed in.”
Jay Hirabayashi said he was touched by the president’s words during the ceremony in honor of his father, and surprised that Obama does not see the paradox in his support of a policy that “basically repeats a period of history that we don’t want to repeat.”
Too many Americans fail to see the chilling parallel between an episode they know was wrong (the World War II internment) and a law that would give the government the power to similarly deprive Americans of their liberty at its whim. The children of Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Yasui should be commended for reminding us of this history lesson.