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A Trump Datenbank? Attitudes to US Muslims recall inter...

World

World, Politics

A Trump Datenbank? Attitudes to US Muslims recall internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II

J. BROOKS SPECTOR considers the ideas behind the creepy things under the rock that are a part of the president-elect’s response to Muslim-Americans.

The other day George Takei sent me an e-mail. Well, okay, he sent it to lots of people, but George and I actually do have some history together, so I can imagine he was writing to me directly, as well as everyone else. Twenty years ago, while I was working in Washington, I was tasked with identifying and recommending names to fill a new vacancy on the board of governors of the smallest US government agency there is – the Japan-US Friendship Commission.

While the commission had fewer than a half dozen employees in total, its task was to identify key themes where the two nations’ societies had important things to say to one another, beyond the then-current squabbles over trade frictions such as those awkward non-tariff barriers, and numerous other impediments to better co-operation and understanding. Despite this agency’s own small profile publicly, it supported important collaborative research, public events and exhibitions and a wide range of other activities.

This commission had gained importance for America at a time when the Japanese menace and the meme of “The Emerging Japanese Superstate” (to cite the title of one popular scholarly but overheated volume by the renowned nuclear warfare theorist Herman Kahn) had gained enormous currency in the popular media, and in novels and blockbuster films such as Black Rain and Rising Sun. As a result, commission members needed to be carefully selected for their public prominence, thoughtfulness and national influence in order to help bring rigour and substance to the commission’s activities.

With this task at hand, almost immediately my thoughts turned to – who else – but Mr Sulu, a.k.a. George Takei, the film and TV actor. I tracked down his phone number in California, spoke with him about the position, and he said he would be very interested to serve, if he was ultimately selected. This was due to his own deep interest in the intellectual and cultural relationship between the two nations, as well as his obvious interest and professional engagement with the film and television industry. Those were important qualifiers – along with his near-universal recognition as the steady, unflappable helmsman (and eventually his own captainship) of a United Federation of Planets star ship.

And so, the other day, I took notice when Takei sent me an e-mail. He was responding in alarm and anger to continuing reports that the incoming Trump administration may yet fasten onto the idea that they will bar all Muslims from the US, or bar entry to the US by Muslims from violence-prone nations, or just angry Muslims, or perhaps even make all Muslims in America register, or even deport all such people more generally. Or something.

Let’s be clear about this issue. Roughly a year ago, in the run-up to the presidential primaries, Donald Trump had got himself into a bit of a snarl about dealing with Muslims in America – and he had publicly proposed the kinds of half-formed policies that might have made at least a few of those old architects of apartheid blink for a moment.

As the New York Times had reported the scene from Newton, Iowa, a year ago,

Donald J. Trump, who earlier in the week said he was open to requiring Muslims in the United States to register in a database, said on Thursday night that he ‘would certainly implement that — absolutely’. Mr Trump was asked about the issue by an NBC News reporter and pressed on whether all Muslims in the country would be forced to register. ‘They have to be,’ he said. ‘They have to be.’

When asked how a system of registering Muslims would be carried out — whether, for instance, mosques would be where people could register — Mr Trump said: ‘Different places. You sign up at different places. But it’s all about management. Our country has no management.’ Asked later, as he signed autographs, how such a database would be different from Jews having to register in Nazi Germany, Mr Trump repeatedly said, ‘You tell me,’ until he stopped responding to the question.”

As the election came closer, Trump edged away from such blunt force trauma-style ideas and proceeded to waffle his way forward, albeit without ever totally denouncing the idea, save to have campaign aides insist it had all been the fault of mendacious reporters for planting such wild ideas into the candidate’s brain.

But then, a few days ago, after having managed to have the Trumpian forces edge away from such apocalyptic ideas for some months, these thoughts were right back on the front burner again. As the New York Times reported,

One of the possible candidates to serve in Donald Trump’s cabinet has been photographed carrying documents into a meeting with the president-elect that outlined aggressive proposals to bar the entry of Syrian refugees and reinstate a national registry focused on Muslims.

Kris Kobach, currently the secretary of state of Kansas, met with Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Sunday as part of an ongoing series of conversations aimed at filling key roles in the pending administration. Kobach has been rumoured to be on the shortlist for different cabinet positions, but based on the documents captured on camera by the Associated Press he might be in the running to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

A closer look at the papers revealed a ‘strategic plan’ for the DHS in the first 365 days of a Trump administration. At the top of Kobach’s list of recommendations was to ‘bar the entry of potential terrorists’ and to both update and reimplement a programme instituted by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks that tracked individuals from ‘high-risk areas’ of the world.

Known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), the programme was based on the country from which an individual migrated but was widely regarded by the media at the time as a Muslim registry. Kobach, who served in the justice department under Bush, was a chief architect of NSEERS. Although Trump’s team has denied that the president-elect supports a Muslim registry, as a candidate he repeatedly expressed his openness to the idea on the campaign trail. He emphasised the need for a database of Syrian refugees, but refused on multiple occasions to rule out a Muslim registry when presented with the question.”

Well, okay, Kobach may still not be joining the Trump administration, and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff-to-be, has said on television that such a plan simply isn’t on the cards, and, yes, Kobach’s or Trump’s (earlier) ideas on this score may yet fall by the wayside, but this kind of nonsense is just as clearly circulating within the Trumpenproletariat. If such a plan evolves that is built upon the ideas of the NSEERS, it would inevitably focus on Muslim-majority countries. And such ideas also clearly resonate with two men already named for the Trump presidency – CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor-designate retired General Michael Flynn. Moreover, Senator Jeff Sessions, nominated by Trump to serve as attorney-general, has in fact argued that a Muslim ban would be constitutional. We’ll come to that particular bit of nasty business in just a minute.

The Times described NSEERS as having “required men over the age of 16 from 25 Muslim-majority countries to register in person with the federal government upon entry, and additionally mandated that some of those already in the country register at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. In its nine years of existence, the programme did not result in any known terrorism charges.” None.

And so, on to George Takei’s letter that read:

Friend

Just a few weeks after my fifth birthday, in the spring of 1942, my parents got my younger brother, my baby sister, and me up very early, hurriedly dressed us, and quickly started to pack.

When my brother and I looked out the window of our living room, we saw two soldiers marching up the driveway, bayonets fixed to their rifles. They banged on our front door and ordered us out of the house. We could take only what we could carry with us.

We were loaded on to train cars with other Japanese-American families, with guards stationed at both ends of each car as though we were criminals, and sent two-thirds of the way across the country to an internment camp in the swamps of Arkansas.

For nearly three years, barbed wire, sentry towers, and armed guards marked home. Mass showers, lousy meals in crowded mess halls, and a searchlight following me as I ran from our barracks to the latrine in the middle of the night – in case I was trying to escape – became normal.

So when I hear Donald Trump’s transition advisers talk about building a registry of Muslims and his surrogates using the internment of Japanese-Americans as their model, I am outraged – because I remember the tears streaming down my mother’s face as we were torn away from our home. And I am resolved to raise my voice and say, loudly and clearly, that this is not who we are.

My mother was born in Sacramento, my father grew up in San Francisco, and my siblings and I were born in Los Angeles. We were American citizens, as proud of our country as we were of our Japanese heritage. But in the fear and mass hysteria of wartime, none of that mattered. When our government allowed hatred and racism to overtake our values, nothing else mattered.

We cannot allow our country to be led down that dark path ever again.

I am committed to fighting for our values, our democracy, and the moral character of our nation. And I am committed to standing with the Democratic Party against bigotry and oppression for the next four years and beyond, no matter what form it takes. I hope you will do the same. Add your name today to stand with me: http://my.democrats.org/Next

Thank you, George

Strong stuff, that.

Takei’s experience echoed what had happened to over 100,000 other Japanese-American citizens or permanent residents living in the states of the American west coast (although not, surprisingly, Hawaii). And it had hung on a sense of national hysteria that the entirety of that particular population had been a hotbed of subversion, terror, sabotage, and espionage, desperately eager to assist the Japanese victory over the US in World War II, following the Japanese surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941 that had brought America into the war.

Watch: WWII Japanese-American Internment propaganda film Japanese Relocation:

In response to these fears, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order that gave the military the power to ban American citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed critical to domestic security. The military quickly issued orders that banned “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien” from Washington State to southern Arizona, and then set up the internment camps such as the one Takei’s family had been sent to, to hold those Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war. As it turned out, there was no espionage, no sabotage, no terror, no subversion by Japanese-Americans, although there were isolated acts by German-Americans on the eastern seaboard.

One man, Fred Korematsu, refused this order for his “evacuation” and fought his case right to the Supreme Court. In one of the court’s most egregiously decided decisions in its history, in 1944, by a 6-3 decision, written by Justice Hugo Black (later a key member of the liberal court led by Earl Warren, who as governor of California had ironically also supported the forced relocation), stated that while “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect” and subject to tests of “the most rigid scrutiny”, not all such restrictions are inherently unconstitutional. “Pressing public necessity,” he wrote, “may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.”

And this, of course, is the same judgment that the attorney general-designate has referred to in order to argue that a possible Muslim register would be constitutional. As it turns out, the lawyers arguing the US government’s case had relied upon “evidence” drawn from a report by a junior naval officer ruminating about the possibilities of sabotage, espionage and subversion that had had virtually no facts or evidence in it.

The Supreme Court has never actually reversed this decision (largely because no new cases dealing with such grounds have come before it, following World War II). But, in the late 1980s, the US government did issue apologies to all living survivors of the camps and provided them with reparations payments. Still, the court’s interpretation remains, disreputable though it may be, and it is one ugly reed to lean upon in times of national or official hysteria.

In opposing from the court’s decision, Justice Robert Jackson, in his passionate dissent, had argued,

A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period, a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalises such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalises the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes….

Korematsu was born on our soil, of parents born in Japan. The Constitution makes him a citizen of the United States by nativity and a citizen of California by residence. No claim is made that he is not loyal to this country. There is no suggestion that apart from the matter involved here he is not law abiding and well disposed. Korematsu, however, has been convicted of an act not commonly a crime. It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived…. [H]is crime would result, not from anything he did, said, or thought, different than they, but only in that he was born of different racial stock. Now, if any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal and not inheritable. Even if all of one’s antecedents had been convicted of treason, the Constitution forbids its penalties to be visited upon him. But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign. If Congress in peace-time legislation should enact such a criminal law, I should suppose this Court would refuse to enforce it.”

The other two dissenting justices, Owen Roberts and Frank Murphy, added their own sharp language, Justice Murphy writing of “the disinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices.” And Justice Roberts noted that the relocation camps were simply “euphemisms” for prison camps for US citizens.

But, even with the passage of an official apology by Congress and payments to survivors, the court’s decision remains, presumably ticking away, perhaps to be resurrected by some official who has a similar response to yet another ethnic, racial or religious group.

Still, a Washington-based international lawyer noted for me by e-mail,

If the USG set up a Muslim registry, it would be immediately challenged in court. I suppose it’s possible that DOJ [Department of Justice] might try to use “Korematsu” as a precedent, but given the odour around the Japanese internment, I doubt it would do so.

But say it did. Given the differences between the threat today and the threat in 1942, a lower court would probably blow off the Korematsu precedent as irrelevant and decide the case in terms of subsequent jurisprudence. It’s very hard to imagine that a blanket Muslim registry would survive judicial scrutiny – it would single out a protected group (a religion) and be wildly disproportionate to the threat.

But if somehow a lower court did uphold a Muslim registry citing Korematsu, the Supreme Court would be free to overturn its own precedent – which it almost certainly would. Bottom line: I don’t think Korematsu is going to play much of a role going forward.” One certainly hopes so.

But, given White House chief counsellor-to-be Steve Bannon’s proclivities inclining towards alt-right hate groups and their warped ideas, the question lingers: Should Americans be worried in any way about the possibility of green (or even yellow or pink) identification badges being quietly proffered in response to some imagined slight against the Trumpenproletariat’s upcoming moment in the sun – and their sense that Muslim-Americans represent an even more subversive force than Japanese-Americans did in 1942? Could we be imagining identification badges with individualised serial numbers and digital codes in indelible ink, per the imaginings of Mr Kobach? Lurid, hateful stuff like this must be condemned directly at the very moment of its conception. The world has been down this road before. DM

Photo: Young evacuee (Wikipedia/Library of Congress)

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