Yesterday, President Obama gave an impassioned speech warning against singling out the American Muslim community, and indeed Muslims worldwide, as complicit in the violence that erupted so tragically in Orlando this weekend. In an angry response to Donald Trump’s insinuation that American Muslims as a group support and hide terrorists, President Obama asked “Where does this stop?”
While most news outlets focused on that soundbite, what the President said next was much more fateful. The President, a former professor of constitutional law, went on to invoke perhaps America’s most reprehensible act after slavery: the internment of Japanese Americans at the outbreak of World War II. He said, “We have gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it. We have seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history.”
It was then California Attorney General Earl Warren who took the decision to intern Japanese Americans, and it was a decision he was to regret for the rest of his life. His decision, upheld in the infamous case of Korematsu v. United States, condemned tens of thousands of Americans to confinement based only on the fear that, collectively, they posed a threat to national security. Yet, like the many Muslim Americans who serve with distinction in the American Military today, many of those Japanese Americans fought gallantly on our behalf in the Second World War. Eventually American acknowledged its wrong, and in 1988, under President George W. Bush, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate the surviving members of the Internment, apologize, and “prevent the recurrence of any similar event.”
Earl Warren’s eventual response to his worst decision was to be his best: as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he extended the equal protection of the law to all Americans in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that entrenched desegregation and equal citizenship for all as cornerstones of the American way of life. Brown was an important political decision in another war: the Cold War fight for the hearts and minds of peoples around the world who found American claims to moral leadership sullied by the evils of racial discrimination. Undoing the wrongs of the Internment, and of segregation, enabled America to champion freedom, justice, and democracy around the globe. President Obama told us yesterday that America once again faces its Korematsu moment. We must not go down that path again.
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