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As the shock from the profound tragedy of Sept. 11 turns to grieving and anger leads to action, civil rights will become a pressing concern. One of the most important precedents in considering how we will treat the millions of Arab-Americans and Muslims is the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The lesson of the internment is negative. Its example — even in the diluted form of racial profiling — should not be followed. After Imperial Japan launched its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — “a day that will live in infamy,” in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic Declaration of War speech — approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were suspected of the worst treason. They were presumed guilty of collaboration, sabotage, espionage, and of likely forming a “fifth column” in the event of an invasion by Japan. Even though two-thirds of the ethnic Japanese in America consisted of native-born U.S. citizens, they were thought to have treasonous blood ties to a hostile power in what was viewed as a racial war. Radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow predicted that if his hometown of Seattle were ever the target of an aerial raid, ethnic Japanese boys wearing University of Washington sweatshirts would be flying the planes. LOSING LIBERTY Given a few days’ notice, ethnic Japanese in America were rounded up and sent to 10 hastily erected internment camps in deserts and swamps. With few exceptions, they were never charged with any crimes nor convicted of any wrongdoing. They lost their liberty, their livelihoods, their communities, and their possessions. Predicates for the internment had deep roots in America. Well before the United States entered the war, Japanese-Americans and all Asian-Americans were despised. Asian immigrants were racially barred from becoming citizens, having lost numerous cases in their effort to prove they met the prerequisite of being “free white persons.” (Asians born in the United States acquired their citizenship by virtue of the 14th Amendment; in the 1895 Wong Kim Ark case, the Supreme Court ruled against the government, which argued that if Chinese could be citizens, “surely in that case American citizenship is not worth having.”) Land laws had been passed to deprive all Asian immigrants (but no others) of their ability to earn money as farmers, because they were feared as economic competitors. After Pearl Harbor, supporters of the internment argued that Japanese-Americans were part of a foreign culture and it would be too hard to sort the loyal from the disloyal. Some argued that their apparent assimilation was a trick. Others claimed that past discrimination against Japanese-Americans had made them resentful, a logic that perversely justified further discrimination. Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense, famously declared, “A Jap’s a Jap. …The Japanese race is an enemy race. …It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese.” He added that German-Americans and Italian-Americans were only dangerous in some instances, “[b]ut we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” Justice Hugo Black, renowned as a civil libertarian, wrote the majority opinion in the best-known of the four Supreme Court cases lending judicial approval to the wholesale incarceration of a minority group. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), Justice Black reasoned that Fred Korematsu, who had received crude plastic surgery in an attempt to pass as Hispanic and stay with his white girlfriend instead of reporting for internment, “was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race.” Instead, Black claimed, “he was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire.” But the crux of the matter must have been race. For aside from being of Japanese ancestry, Korematsu was simply another citizen. Apart from that, he had nothing to do with the Japanese Empire. Japanese-Americans responded to such attitudes with a loyal American patriotism that can only be called unrequited love. Though still technically classified as “enemy aliens,” those who enlisted in the then-segregated Army proved themselves with the ultimate sacrifice. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion became the most highly decorated units of their size and length of service in American history. Even so, decades later, Asian-Americans continue to face the perpetual foreigner syndrome. In an interview granted on the condition it be published posthumously, Justice Black defended himself a quarter-century after his Korematsu decision, saying, “They all look alike to a person not a Jap. Had they attacked our shores you’d have a large number fighting with the Japanese troops.” Just a few years ago, Chief Justice William Rehnquist published a book arguing the internment had been proper, on the basis that at least first generation Japanese immigrants could be distrusted because they had not naturalized. Most other assessments of the internment program have not been so forgiving. The findings of a 1982 independent government commission state that “the record does not permit the conclusion that military necessity warranted the exclusion of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast.” Further, scholarly research shows Justice Department lawyers during World War II had concluded that the case for internment was based on misleading, if not false, evidence. Starting with President Gerald Ford, administrations of both political parties have apologized for the wrong done to Japanese-Americans. President Ronald Reagan showed that our government can help to correct its own mistakes by signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which paid $20,000 to each living internee. Just as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are different than Pearl Harbor, the responses are different; discussion so far has not included calls for Arab and Muslim internment. But the possibility is not as remote as it might seem — in 1986, the federal government developed a plan to “quarantine” Arab immigrants in the event of war with Arab nations. (Once that document became public during the Persian Gulf conflict, it was repudiated as a draft not meant as official policy.) In this difficult time, President George W. Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have already made statements acknowledging and celebrating our racial and religious diversity. Before Sept. 11, only a handful of politicians, radio DJs, and extreme vigilantes used ethnicity to accuse people. But since then, there have been some murmurings making assumptions about all Arabs, all Muslims, and all foreigners. Worse, there have been several hundred attacks, some of them fatal. The victims of these hate crimes have been targeted because of their race — or at least because of their presumed race; among the early victims was an Indian Sikh, taken to be an Arab or a Muslim, who was shot to death in Mesa, Ariz., by a self-proclaimed patriot. TODAY’S AMERICANS In the current crisis, Asian-Americans have rallied on behalf of Arab-Americans. And major groups of American Jews, themselves long plagued by unfounded accusations of dual loyalties, have condemned attacks on Arab-Americans. This is a considerable contrast to 60 years ago, when liberals such as future Chief Justice Earl Warren and distinguished columnist Walter Lippman demanded that Japanese-Americans be rounded up and imprisoned. Even the national headquarters of the ACLU acquiesced to the internment, provoking its California branches to break away in support of the legal challenges that were brought. Americans have made considerable progress in matters of race since World War II. But current vague pledges to avoid racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims may not be enough. In extreme times, even reasonable people may advocate extreme measures. If we believed before Sept. 11 that the internment was a mistake and if we were then convinced of the value of due process and equal protection of the laws, our principles demand the same today. Our history has taught us a lesson we cannot afford to forget now: Unity cannot be purchased at the expense of minority groups. Frank H. Wu, an associate professor at Howard University School of Law, is co-author of the just-published Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment (Aspen) and author of the forthcoming Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (Basic).

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