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Creating a False "Enemy Within": The Lessons of Internment, 70 Years Later

Posted: 02/20/2012 11:41 am

Sunday, February 19, 2012, marked the seventieth anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order (EO) 9066 -- a tragic moment in our nation's history.

On February 19th, 1942, "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership" overwhelmed the best angels of the American character. EO 9066 declared the West Coast a military zone. Japanese Americans were branded as an "enemy within." 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate their homes. My family and I were herded like cattle into the Amache internment camp in southeast Colorado. I was less than one year old at the time.

Today, I remember two men who showed extraordinary bravery in the face of EO 9066. Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, driven by a bedrock belief in that most American principal of equality and justice for all, refused to comply with EO 9066. They were arrested and jailed for their courage and conviction.

Seventy years later, however, the true greatness of America recognizes both men as heroes. Since his passing in January, Gordon has been remembered as a civil rights leader in events from sea to shining sea. Two photos of Fred, who passed away in 2005, now sit in a historic place of honor -- in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Struggle For Justice."

Fred and Gordon refused to stand idly by in the face of grave injustice. Instead, they became heroes. Today, their heroism is a lodestar for every American -- guiding each one of us on a mission to forge a more perfect union.

For, make no mistake, we all still have great work to do.

We cannot stand idly by as an entire American community is demonized as a "religious enemy within." We cannot hide our eyes when failed leaders like State Rep. Rick Womack of Tennessee declare that Muslims must be purged from our military or that Muslims pray to a false God. We must not stay silent as Rep. Peter King -- during a recent hearing on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor -- uses tragic but isolated crimes and unnamed sources to proclaim that one group -- Muslims -- are the source of all homegrown terrorist threats to the military.

We cannot turn away as two American companies -- Lowe's and Kayak -- pull their advertising from TLC's All American Muslim television show in the face of Florida Family Association's extremist assertions that the program misrepresents the "dangerous and radical truth" of the Islamic religion. And we will not stand idly by in the face of evidence that the NYPD and CIA are illegally and unjustly probing Muslim communities in New York City.

This demonization of Muslim Americans ignores the rich, diverse background of the community, its contributions to American society, and its invaluable service to the United States military. This demonization, sadly couched in the memory of the tragic events of 9/11 and the name of American security, shreds our Constitution, imperils our homeland and derails our sacred mission to forge a union where each American -- no matter her race or religion -- lives free, with equal rights and protections.

Today, we recognize a new generation of budding civil rights leaders, whose courage and conviction do justice to the legacy of Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi.

Coalitions of emerging civil rights leaders are filing lawsuits against the NYPD and the CIA for illegally spying on Americans. They are petitioning law enforcement and the courts to fight back against overbroad FBI recruiting tactics targeting thousands of innocent Americans with no cause or warrant. They are questioning the unrestricted power that our government has taken through the indefinite detention clause in the recent National Defense Authorization Act that allows for the detainment of citizens and immigrants alike without any charge. They are forging a more perfect union by virtue of their convictions; just as Fred and Gordon did in 1942.

Today, let us pledge to finish the work of Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi -- to guarantee that America, a union forged in liberty's name and dedicated to the equality of all, endures.

This article first appeared in the Washington Post "On Faith" Blog.

Rep. Honda (D-Calif.) is Silicon Valley's representative in Congress. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Budget Task Force Chairman for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the author of The People's Budget, and a member of the House Appropriations and Budget committees.

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