You know the story.
1942. We were at war with Japan. We were at war with Germany, too, but that was different because we hated Germans but they kind of looked like us and it was hard to be sure. The Japanese, though, they even looked different. And had different sorts of names. And there'd been Genghis Khan and Fu Manchu. And they were treacherous. They attacked Pearl Harbor without first sending a post card announcing when they'd do it so we could be prepared to fight back. And there was this long history of racism against Asians (who weren't, after all, white).
So we were at war and were scared and we hated them anyway, so we did what red-blooded Americans always do at times like that: We imposed a curfew on Japanese-Americans near the west coast. Then we herded them into concentration camps. More than 100,000 of them.
- Until it was over.
- Without trials.
- Without redress.
- Citzens and resident aliens.
- Who'd done nothing wrong.
- Except have that funny-colored skin.
Minoru Yasui, Fred Korematsu, and Gordon Hirabayashi refused. They went to court where they would be protected, vindicated.
They believed in that silly thing called the Constitution. Limited Government. Equal Justice under law. Even in times of war. Even when we're scared. Even if they were "yellow."
The courts, they knew, would enforce the Rule of Law against the Law of Rule.
They were wrong. In a string of cases, the Supreme Court ruled against them.
Korematsu, decided in 1944, was a 6-3 decision, Justices Roberts, Murphy, and Jackson dissenting.
Hirabayashi and its companion case Yasui were decided in 1943 and were unanimous.
The Japanese interment and the Supreme Court's decisions are a national embarrassment and a stain on the judiciary. Of a piece with Dred Scott, and Plessy v. Fergusen.
But Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui are heroes. They stood up for what they knew (and we know) was right. Despite the odds. They fought. And then they lost. Still, they didn't give up.
Their convictions were reversed in the 1980s. The government, it turns out, had already determined that the Japanese-Americans were no threat to national security. It just wanted them put away.
In 1988, the government apologized for its conduct and payed reparations to those it locked away for no reason but the color of their skin. Too little and too late, but something.
Minoru Yasui died in 1986.
Fred Korematsu died in 2005.
On December 31, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act which provides for indefinite detention without trial of anyone, citizen or not, found in this country or not, who's suspected of being somehow someway you know maybe could be connected to Al Qaeda or someone who might be somehow.
Two days later, on January 2, Gordon Hirabayashi died. He was 93. He was living in Canada. May he rest in peace.
h/t Jonathan Katz