National Defense Authorization Act: Nikkei Community Must Redouble Efforts To Defend Constitutional Rights

LOS ANGELES — President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 31, 2011, allowing indefinite detention without charge or trial to be codified into law. As a result, Americans citizens and others could be subjected to imprisonment without ever being charged or convicted of a crime. This provision of the NDAA denigrates the very foundations of this country, and undermines the Bill of Rights. Without question, it threatens the very foundation of our democracy.

Seventy years ago, 120,000 members of the Japanese American (Nikkei) community, our families and friends, were subjected to imprisonment without ever being charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he signed Executive Order 9066. The Nikkei community was denied habeas corpus, rounded up by the United States military and incarcerated behind barbed wire in desolate places.

Indeed, indefinite detention is an indelible part of our experience. In this sense, the Nikkei community is part of the democratic conscience of the United States.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not protect our community from unjust incarceration. It took decades of struggle, testimony, and countless challenges for the government to even recognize this injustice as an act of “race prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The experiences of the Nikkei people during World War II demonstrates that freedom, even in this democracy of ours, must be protected. Now, on the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, we witness a direct assault on the rights of habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights.

We must remember our history and oppose any and all attempts to undermine the Constitution of the United States of America. We must remember, and we must be vigilant, because it appears that the Congress and the President of the United States have forgotten.

Post 9/11, the Manzanar Committee, along with many in the Nikkei community, condemned the persistent and virulent racist acts against the Muslim community. Echoes of the past—hysterical, baseless fears, fueled by racism, sounded so similar to what our families and friends endured prior to, and during World War II, and, now, in an eerily familiar fashion, baseless fears are leading to the erosion of our civil rights.

For more than four decades, the Manzanar Committee has organized an annual Pilgrimage to the site of the former Manzanar concentration camp to pay our respects and honor the survivors. We demanded the government recognize this injustice and that this never happen again. Today, Manzanar and the sites of the nine other War Relocation Authority camps are historical landmarks. Some area units of the National Park Service, staffed by rangers telling our story. The Pilgrimage continues and has grown. Manzanar At Dusk, led by college students and other young people, has grown. Hundreds participate in this intergenerational event, where abstract stories of endurance and struggle come alive.

Yet, despite all the progress made in reclaiming our rightful place in American society, it appears that the fundamental lesson of the incarceration of 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry has yet to understood in the halls of power. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, on this very important anniversary, to redouble our efforts to defend the Bill of Rights, and, in so doing, honor our civil rights heroes like Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu.

This is our legacy.

Bruce Embrey, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee, writes from Los Angeles, California.

The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey, shown here during the 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, 2011. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

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