Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

This is how fear mongering works. The year could be 1942 … or 2015.

“I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

Those are the words of David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia. The “sequester” he alludes to was the unjust and inhumane internment by the U.S. government of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It wasn’t just “foreign nationals” who suffered this treatment but citizens as well, including those born in our country.

Bowers’ historically vacuous statement was apparently his contribution to the current debate over whether the U.S. should follow through on its promise to accept refugees from the Syrian civil war. What he implies is that Syrian refugees are just as likely to do the bidding of the Islamic State as Japanese-Americans were to serve the war aims of Imperial Japan.

That drew shudders from the descendants and colleagues of a distinguished American by the name of Minoru Yasui. Yasui spent virtually all of his 70 years trying to get the U.S. government not only to apologize for but also to understand the injustice of having interned him and nearly 120,000 other people of Japanese ancestry during the war.

Yasui was born in Oregon. He had a law degree and had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Infantry Reserve. Nevertheless, he was kept in prison and internment for three years. The reason? His ancestry.

The Yasui family has worked for years to gain their patriarch justice. He was announced as a posthumous recipient the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this month. A few days later, the hysteria over the Syrian refugees reached a fevered pitch, inspiring Bower’s remarks.

“If Yasui was here, he would condemn what is happening,” said Peggy Nagae, a Portland attorney who served as the lead attorney in reopening the case of his conviction for breaking laws restricting Japanese-Americans.

She notes that a 1981 governmental report, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, determined that the internment was not justified by military necessity but a “grave injustice,” the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

No acts of espionage or sabotage were ever found among those interned. Yet the Japanese-Americans were thought to be waiting, plotting something really big against their own country.

Yasui purposefully broke a curfew, trying to mount a legal test. He spent nine months in solitary confinement while awaiting an appeal for disobeying an order for enemy aliens. The fight went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the curfew constitutional as a wartime necessity.

Yasui was assigned to the Minidoka Relocation Camp in Idaho and later was sent to work in an ice plant.

After the war, he ended up in Denver, where he helped establish civil rights organizations and worked closely with African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Yasui died in 1986.

And it wasn’t until nearly 50 years after the internment, in 1990, that the first checks of compensation for that act were issued by President George H.W. Bush. About $20,000 went to each internee.

For Nagae the parallels between Yasui’s era and the fears driving the politics today, especially after the Paris terrorist attacks, are stark. Her own father had also been interned and was befriended by Yasui.

“Fear is used to justify actions on the basis of military security and national security,” she said. “It’s an issue and conflict that doesn’t go away.”

Chani Hawkins, Yasui’s granddaughter, is working on a documentary film and other memorials to her grandfather’s life.

“We feel it is an important lesson that we must learn from as a country so similar mistakes are not repeated,” Hawkins said.

Apparently, many of us haven’t learned. More than half the nation’s governors have asserted that no Syrian refugee will be resettled in their state.

It’s a posture that won’t pass constitutional scrutiny — but also that makes little sense. The system of security checks for refugees is already rigorous, including vetting by counter-terrorism agencies. Yet a bipartisan House bill hurriedly passed last week would upend the complex security process already in place for judging refugee applications.

“Race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Let’s remember those words — and make sure they play no part in how we respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at


Photo: Dust storm at Manzanar War Relocation Center. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikicommons)

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at