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Japanese internees see modern parallels

MANZANAR, Calif. -- Walled by the Sierra Nevada mountains, in a desert of dried creek beds and yellow rabbit grass, stands the only US monument to the nation's own, officially acknowledged mistake.

"No more Manzanars," read the shirts sold to help restore the camp where 10,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were held between 1942 and 1945.

But the road to atonement has taken a strange turn. Ever since the war on terrorism began, those who lived through the Japanese internment are shocked that even though American politicians have long since repudiated that dark chapter of World War II, American courts have never held that the government lacked the authority to hold people in wartime without presenting evidence.

Now, while the National Park Service puts the finishing touches on a new visitors center depicting the Japanese internment as a mistake for which Congress has granted reparations and President George H.W. Bush has officially apologized, visitors keep pointing out similarities to the more than 600 foreign combatants being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the hundreds of Muslim Americans held for questioning after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"We get a lot of questions about it, and we try to engage the public in how what happened in the '40s affects events today," said the superintendent, Frank Hayes.

The facts may differ substantially, but the legal authority for some of the incarcerations derives from the same source: In a time of war, the president can order people held without judicial review as a national-security necessity.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is expected to announce whether it will hear challenges to that authority from two types of detainees, and a third case is likely to be considered in another month. A shadow from the past, Fred Korematsu, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case validating President Franklin D. Roosevelt's internment order, has emerged to file a brief in support of the Muslim detainees.

At 24, Korematsu desperately tried to flee with his white girlfriend to the Midwest to avoid internment. At 84 and in frail health, he is speaking for all detainees. "To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, this court should make clear that the United States respects fundamental constitutional and human rights, even in a time of war," said Korematsu's brief.

But the detainees have lost their cases at almost every stage of the process, a fact that is reverberating through the community of former Japanese internees. And while law schools have long taught the Korematsu decision as a misguided product of wartime hysteria, in some instances placing it alongside Dred Scott as an example of Supreme Court mistakes, many judges and lawyers acknowledge its holding may still have merit.

"Our Constitution's commitment of the conduct of war to the political branches of American government requires the court's respect at every step," wrote Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, a case involving Yaser Esam Hamdi, a likely American citizen who is being held as an enemy combatant after having been arrested on a battlefield in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration steered clear of the Korematsu decision in its briefs, but traced the president's national-security power to some of the precedents that also were used to help justify Korematsu's internment. The legal authority, the government said, comes straight from the Constitution's war-making power. In a series of decisions involving the Hamdi case, the Fourth Circuit cited the need "to avoid encroachment into the military affairs entrusted to the executive," although it noted in one decision that the president's power to hold US citizens, at least, is not without limits.

Taken together, the cases involving Muslim detainees lack the broad-brush racial taint of the Japanese internment, when all people of Japanese extraction in certain areas were ordered into camps; the Muslim detainees are individually suspected of aiding or wanting to aid enemies of the United States.

But for many former Japanese internees, the similarities are painfully obvious and stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the injustice of holding people without giving them an opportunity to vouch for their loyalty.

"Did they have a hearing? An attorney? Do they have any evidence?" asked Sue Embrey, 79, who lived in the Manzanar camp with her family for 17 months and is chairwoman of the Manzanar Committee. "You can't say it's exactly what happened to us, but it's wrong."

About 120,000 people of Japanese extraction were held in 10 camps. Manzanar was one. Embrey recalled moments and images like dots on a canvas: The internment orders pasted on lampposts in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles; her widowed mother giving up her small grocery store; eight family members living in one 20-by-25-foot room; unfamiliar food; showering with strangers. Mas Okui, 72, who was at Manzanar for three years, recalled going to school on the day after the Pearl Harbor attack and seeing an Asian classmate wearing a sign around his neck declaring, "I am Chinese." Even as a child of 10, Okui sensed something bad was about to happen.

Before he left for Manzanar, his teacher called him up in front of the class, kissed him on the cheek, and gave him a copy of "Huckleberry Finn" to take with him.

In the country, there was little doubt that Roosevelt's internment order was justified. California Attorney General Earl Warren, later a civil rights hero, said the internment was needed to prevent "another Pearl Harbor." As late as 1984, former assistant secretary of war John J. McCloy wrote that "the relocation method against the Japanese was a good reason why serious acts of sabotage did not occur." There is no evidence to support McCloy's contention, and a succession of presidents declared that the internments were, in the words of George H. W. Bush, "serious injustices." In towns around Manzanar, a remote outpost near the Nevada border, there are signs of a more complex reality. Betty Jewett, 79, who has lived in tiny Independence, Calif., since 1931, recalled the fears of the town when people heard Japanese would be interned nearby. But the camp provided jobs, which were desperately needed, and Jewett signed up to order supplies for a factory making camouflage netting.

Standing beside the monument marked "I RE I TO," or "Soul Consoling Tower," Jewett recalled the internees as "very clean" and "happy in here."

Jewett was at the camp in December 1943, when a riot broke out and two men were killed. Jewett blames an angry leader for stirring up others. Embrey, who was also there, attributed the shootings to the nervous trigger fingers of the guards, who fired without an order. Okui only recalled hearing the shots and running.

Very little is left of the camp, only a few buildings and markers in the sand. And people living nearby have all but forgotten what happened. "What do I see?" said Jewett, casting her eyes around the site of the internment camp. "I see beautiful mountains."

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