Stop and consider these words. The internment was a dark chapter of American history, in which 120,000 people, including me and my family, lost our homes, our livelihoods, and our freedoms because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. Higbie speaks of the internment in the abstract, as a “precedent” or a policy, ignoring the true human tragedy that occurred.
I was just a child of 5 when we were forced at gunpoint from our home and sent first to live in a horse stable at a local race track, a family of five crammed into a single smelly stall. It was a devastating blow to my parents, who had worked so hard to buy a house and raise a family in Los Angeles. After several weeks, they sent us much farther away, 1,000 miles to the east by rail car, the blinds of our train cars pulled for our own protection, they said. We disembarked in the fetid swamps of Arkansas at the Rohwer Relocation Center. Really, it was a prison: Armed guards looked down upon us from sentry towers; their guns pointed inward at us; searchlights lit pathways at night. We understood. We were not to leave.
My parents did their best to make life seem normal. As a child, I very readily accepted our new circumstance and adjusted to it. As far as I was concerned, it was normal to line up to use the common latrine, or to eat wretched grub in a common mess hall, prisoners in our own country. It was normal for us to share a single small barrack with no privacy whatsoever. And it was normal to stand each day in our makeshift classroom, reciting the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, “With liberty and justice for all,” as I looked past the U.S. flag out the window, the barbed wire of the camp just visible behind it.
Not until I was older did I understand the irony of those words and the injustice that had been visited on so many of us. As I studied civics and government in school, I came to see the internment as an assault not only upon an entire group of Americans, but upon the Constitution itself — how its guarantees of due process and equal protection had been decimated by forces of fear and prejudice unleashed by unscrupulous politicians. It had been a Democratic administration at the time, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, that had ordered us to the camps, proving that demagoguery and race-baiting knows no party.
It took decades for the United States to own up to what it had done and officially apologize for the internment, offering symbolic monetary reparations to the survivors. I donated my own check to the Japanese American National Museum, whose mission, like mine, has been to help ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated. That is why these words by Higbie, which ominously are representative of much of the current thinking in the incoming administration, have reopened very old and very deep wounds.
This was not the first time the Trump camp had raised the internment. When he did so before, it wasn’t as the historical warning it should be, but as a precedent for what might yet come. In late 2015, during the presidential primary, Trump actually went on the record with Time magazine stating that he did not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said. He argued that FDR was “one of the most highly respected presidents,” and that what he was suggesting was “no different from FDR.” Trump hedged his response with a nod to the horror of the camps, but tellingly did not disavow them: “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
Higbie similarly has kept open the specter of the camps, in one breath stating that he does not favor the idea, but in the very next noting, “We have to protect America first.” Indeed, in a follow-up interview with the New York Times, Higbie doubled down on the unthinkable: “There is historical, factual precedent to do things [that] are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security.”
Let us all be clear: “National security” must never again be permitted to justify wholesale denial of constitutional rights and protections. If it is freedom and our way of life that we fight for, our first obligation is to ensure that our own government adheres to those principles. Without that, we are no better than our enemies.
Let us also agree that ethnic or religious discrimination cannot be justified by calls for greater security. During World War II, the government argued that military authorities could not distinguish between alleged enemy elements and peaceful, patriotic Japanese Americans. It concluded, therefore, that all those of Japanese descent, including American citizens, should be presumed guilty and held without charge, trial or legal recourse, in many cases for years. The very same arguments echo today, on the assumption that a handful of presumed radical elements within the Muslim community necessitates draconian measures against the whole, all in the name of national security.
It begins with profiling and with registries, but as Trump and Higbie have made clear, once the safety of the country is at stake, all safeguards are off. In their world, national security justifies actions that are “sometimes not right,” and no one really can guarantee where it will end.
We cannot permit this invidious thinking, discredited by history at the cost of so much misery and suffering by innocents, to take root once again in America, let alone in the White House. The stigmatization, separation and labeling of our fellow humans based on race or religion has never led to a more secure world. But it has too often led to one where the most vulnerable pay the highest price.
The Constitution and the government exist in large measure to protect against the excesses of democracies. This is particularly salient when, in an atmosphere of fear or mistrust, one group is singled out and vilified, as Japanese Americans were during World War II and as Muslim Americans are today. How terrible it is to contemplate, once again, that the government itself might once more be the very instrument of terror and division. That cannot happen again. We cannot allow it.