If you would like a preview of what is to come, you need to look to our history – not the history of a far-off land controlled by a foreign philosophy. In May 1942, more than 110, 000 American citizens of Japanese descent were declared to be under “exclusion,” the politest euphemism yet conjured for incarceration. Thus began the period of Japanese internment, when a group of people, on account of nothing more than their heritage, were rounded up and imprisoned. When Trump threatens Iran and Mexico, those who know this history hear the terrifying echo of this past.
In May of 1942, Fred Korematsu violated the order requiring his involuntary detention. His case went to the Supreme Court, and in that decision, we find ominous hints of what might come to pass in America again.
We uphold the exclusion order… In doing so, we are not unmindful of the hardships imposed by it upon a large group of American citizens. But hardships are a part of war, and war is an aggregation of hardships. Citizenship has its responsibilities, as well as its privileges, and, in time of war, the burden is always heavier. Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when, under conditions of modern warfare, our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.
We see, within this passage, the justification that might be used again against another group. The intricacies of modern warfare demand the incarceration – pardon, exclusion – of some specific part of the population. Certainly a military skirmish with Mexico would warrant the forced expulsion of Americans of Mexican ancestry. After all, Trump has already articulated his position that American citizens are not capable of being impartial or upholding the laws of the United States when they are Mexican-American. By the reasoning above, steeped in fear-mongering and dripping with deference, such an exclusion would merely be the patriotic duty of the imprisoned.
But surely there would be outcry. Surely we would call it what it is, and challenge it in court. Fred Korematsu and his attorneys did just that. They lost. The court not only ruled against Mr. Korematsu, but went on to provide a neat justification for any future president who wished to follow suit while avoiding the pesky comparison to concentration camps.
It is said that we are dealing here with the case of imprisonment of a citizen in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. Our task would be simple, our duty clear, were this a case involving the imprisonment of a loyal citizen in a concentration camp because of racial prejudice. Regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers – and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps, with all the ugly connotations that term implies – we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order. To cast this case into outlines of racial prejudice, without reference to the real military dangers which were presented, merely confuses the issue.
We will, you see, merely be confusing the issue, when we claim that Trump’s “exclusion” of Mexican-Americans, Iranian-Americans, Pakistani, Afghani, Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, Lybian, Sudanese and Somali-Americans, is based not on a true danger, but on a fear and loathing, stoked by the far right and cultivated by this administration to use as a political Molotov cocktail.
Again, you say, this cannot happen here. We have learned our lesson from the internment of the Japanese. We are more level-headed now. Surely there will be powerful voices of dissent. There were, in this case too. And in those dissents, the Justices of the Supreme Court taught Mr. Trump exactly what boxes he must check in order to pass constitutional muster. Justice Murphy claimed that in order to support a plea of military necessity to deprive an individual of any of her constitutional rights, the government must show that “the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so ‘immediate, imminent, and impending'” that the intervention of ordinary constitutional processes to alleviate the danger would not be possible.