On this day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting in motion one of the most systematic acts of racial exclusion of the century.
Against the backdrop of global warfare and political paranoia, the order allowed the mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent by the military without due process, under the guise of “military necessity.” By March, the government had begun uprooting whole communities and shuttling people into internment camps, where they would be detained indefinitely, often in squalid conditions. Eventually, the number of people removed to the system of “War Detention Centers” would total about 120,000, including several thousand born to parents caged in the isolated camps. The social and psychological trauma of mass detention would reverberate for generations.
The decades following World War II have brought some efforts toward restitution for the individuals and families impacted by internment. The controversy surrounding the government’s ability to detain people laid the groundwork for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
But America’s legacy of arbitrary imprisonment still echoes today in modern detention centers. Constitutional rights and restorative justice continues to elude detainees of the so-called war on terror. The legal debate has taken a different tone, and the prisoners’ fate could be changed by political shifts in Washington. But a stubborn circularity persists in the country’s attitude toward detention and executive impunity. Our collective memory of what we’re willing to allow in the name of national security remains perilously short.
Image: Barracks at War Relocation Authority Center, Manzanar, California. Credit: Dorothea Lange