Editor’s Note: George Takei is an actor and activist and the creator of the Broadway show “Allegiance.” Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeTakei. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
As a Japanese-American who grew up behind the barbed wire of US internment camps, I sensed the cold dread that Muslims must have felt when they learned this week of the Supreme Court ruling upholding Donald Trump’s travel ban.
I could imagine the foreboding they must have experienced, being painted with a broad brush as potential terrorists – as threats to our national security, because we Japanese-Americans were likewise characterized as spies and saboteurs more than 75 years ago after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan.
With no evidence or charges, innocent American citizens of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned simply because of our race. And similarly today, people from five Muslim-majority countries (and two other countries) – without evidence of threat or wrongdoing – are banned or severely restricted from entry to this country simply because of their place of origin. And in both cases, this has been sanctioned by the highest court in the land.
And as if to make a sardonic mockery of its own ruling against Muslims, the Supreme Court at the same time essentially overruled its 1944 decision, Korematsu v. the United States, which justified the Japanese-American internment. Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts called Korematsu “gravely wrong.” The irony is keenly bittersweet.
Americans, as a people, however, have learned the lesson of the Japanese-American internment. When Trump signed the first of three executive orders banning or restricting entry to the United States by people from seven Muslim-majority countries in January 2017, the response of the people was quick, massive and overpowering.
All across the country, people rushed to the airports to protest the Muslim travel ban, and attorneys offered pro bono service to new arrivals. Acting US Attorney General Sally Yates refused to defend an executive order that she considered unconstitutional.
The people seem to know the fundamental ideals of our nation better than the so-called leaders of the nation. It is deeply troubling when those charged with maintaining the institutions of government, from the presidency to the Supreme Court, are losing their credibility with the citizenry.
When I was a teenager, long after our imprisonment, I remember my father, who bore the pain and degradation and the loss from the internment the most in our family, telling me that, despite our terrible experience, our democracy is still the best form of government in the world.
He told me that ours is a “people’s democracy.” It has the potential to do great things, and in our history the people have accomplished amazing things. But people are also fallible – they are human beings. They make mistakes – sometimes terrible mistakes. But when people who cherish the shining ideals of our democracy actively engage in the process of a participatory democracy, ultimately our government will right itself.
My father told me that President Franklin Roosevelt, during the Depression, did a herculean job of pulling a nation out of the depth of economic malaise. But when the nation was swept up by war hysteria, fear and racism, even that great President got stampeded by the current of the times and put us in barbed-wire prison camps. He, too, was a human being with fallibilities.
But ultimately, a people’s democracy will recognize its mistake. America is a nation big enough and confident enough to correct itself, apologize and pay just restitution. It took a long time – more than 40 years with people advocating, campaigning and engaging in the democratic process.
And in 1988, President Ronald Reagan, officially on behalf of the United States, apologized for the internment and paid a token restitution.
How many years will it take for some Supreme Court of the future to overturn the Muslim travel ban ruling of 2018?