August 10, 1988, was a historic day, for it symbolized hope that our country has perhaps learned a lesson about protecting the rights of its citizens and other residents during times of great crisis. It should be remembered by Japanese Americans and all Americans as much as February 19, 1942. August 10 was the date on which the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (CLA) was signed into law, which was our government_s act to acknowledge that it had committed a tremendous wrong against Japanese Americans and the Constitution during World War II, and to seek a way to make amends.
Yet the question remained: how will the lessons from this injustice carry over into insight during any future time of crisis? Will the government commit similar injustices, and how would the American public respond? We need only to look at events of today.
September 11, 2001, is a date that marks a tremendous tragedy for the U.S. and the American public. It was also the beginning of a period of turmoil in which we now find ourselves. There is great fear about more terrorist attacks, and there is concern about what price people are willing to pay to alleviate that fear, both in dollars and in loss of civil liberties. September 11 reminded many of us of the lessons of February 19, 1942, and August 10, 1988.
Immediately after September 11, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) initiated a candlelight vigil in order to allow the Japanese American community a way to express its sympathy and sorrow for those who died and for their loved ones. It was also a statement by our community that we, of all people, knew the deep fears and anxieties held by Arab and Muslim Americans, and we urged the public to keep their heads and protect the civil rights and general well-being of those perceived "to be like the enemy."
From that event, NCRR formed the NCRR September 11 Committee to monitor and guard against hate crimes and civil rights violations against Muslim and Arab Americans and South Asian Americans. We built ties with organizations in those communities as a way to build mutual trust and understanding, and to educate the Japanese American community and others about these communities, their histories and cultures. We also tried to keep up with current events to make sure that injustices like those in 1942 didn_t happen again.
NCRR and the September 11 Committee wanted to keep the community informed about potential threats to the civil and constitutional rights of fellow Americans. We learned about indefinite incarceration of detainees without charges, disputes about the release of their names, deportation of noncitizens without hearings, and so on. It sounded so much like what happened to Japanese American Issei leaders and others right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Immigrant noncitizens, then and now, have been treated as if they are automatic security threats and have no rights at all.
These governmental activities have been a real source of concern. There has not been enough public discussion and general disclosure of information about them. Probably many Japanese Americans have heard at least something about these activities, and some may have said, "Well, it_s too bad what_s happening to noncitizens right now, but at least they_re not talking about camps like World War II, where both citizens and noncitizens were interned."
Well, a couple of weeks ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a little-publicized statement, called for camps for citizens who were deemed "enemy combatants." How would the government determine whether a person is an "enemy combatant"? Remember during World War II when Japanese American Issei were called "enemy aliens" and citizens were called "non-aliens"? It was so easy at the time to immediately label our Issei as the "enemy" and to remove the fact that 70% of Japanese Americans in camps were citizens. So, first the FBI rounded up the "enemy aliens," and then Japanese American citizens became "non-aliens." In the end, all Japanese Americans became a "threat to national security" and were removed from the West Coast and put into camps.
Japanese Americans know, from our experience, how the lines between "loyal and disloyal" get totally blurred during times of crisis. In fact, we were all suspected of being potentially disloyal during World War II. Yet, history shows that not one Japanese American was ever found to be guilty of espionage or sabotage. That fact shows how grossly Japanese Americans were wronged during WWII, and it should remind us today how careful we must be in how we and our government view those who "look like the enemy."
From our experience, we know how easily and tragically innocent people can be deemed potentially "disloyal" without any charges or legal cause of action. And from that experience, we know how easily Ashcroft and his Department of Justice could make an equally tragic mistake by deeming both citizens and noncitizens as "enemy combatants" without any charges or legal cause of action.
We must remember our own history and teach it to the American people. A critical lesson of the redress movement was the 1983 report of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). After hearings in ten sites throughout the United States, listening to former internees, former government officials, and historians, the CWRIC concluded that the reason for Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans was not "military necessity." It found that Japanese Americans were not a threat to national security during WWII, and that the internment was not for the protection of Japanese Americans. The CWRIC instead stated clearly that the reasons for the internment were "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."
As we remember August 10, 1988, let us take to heart the findings of the CWRIC and make sure that these same reasons do not lull us into allowing our government to make the same mistakes. We need healthy debate and discussion among ourselves. August 10 taught us that redress or any other push for justice requires political will and action by members of the American public. It took hard work by the community, many internal struggles, and the critical support of other minority groups, civil rights organizations, and others
Because of our experience, the voice of Japanese Americans in speaking out today can be a compelling one. The large media coverage at our candlelight vigil demonstrated that. Norman Mineta, as Secretary of Transportation, has invoked the internment experience in justifying his steadfast and effective refusal to allow racial profiling in screening airline passengers. NCRR urges you to raise your voice about Attorney General Ashcroft_s proposal and other concerns by writing or calling President Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft. We must not allow what happened to us to happen again.