Righting a wrong

IT can be rare for an injustice buried in the past to be righted. But Congress is attempting just that with its legislation, approved by wide margins in both Senate and House, to give an apology and $20,000 to each surviving Japanese-American interned without legal recourse during World War II. This is a fundamentally right-minded endeavor. How can one truly compensate 120,000 people who were stripped of all civil and property rights by a country that stands for individual liberty? The majority of those put behind barbed wire were United States citizens. Lives and hopes were brutally shattered. Equally important, for a moment in history the ideals of American democracy were shattered. Generations look back at that misuse of government power and wonder how it could have happened.

The answer is clear enough. The country had been stunned by a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor; patriotic fervor - which often evokes both the best and the worst in men - was unleashed. Fear, race consciousness, and reports of an imminent Japanese attack on the West Coast overrode the Bill of Rights. What looks so mistaken in hindsight seemed a practical step at the time.

None of this argues against the compensation voted by Congress, though a handful of lawmakers raised such objections. Others held up the current budget deficit as a reason to defeat the payments part of the legislation. Is $1.3 billion, to be paid out over five years to some 60,000 survivors, too much?

One senator, Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, offered an amendment to withhold payments until Japan compensates Americans for losses at Pearl Harbor.

The issue at hand, however, is America's own breach of faith with its democratic traditions. All objections fell before the recognition that the country has an opportunity to correct, albeit belatedly, a major wrong.

History will now show, if President Reagan overrules his budget-minded advisers and signs the bill, that an attempted adjustment of accounts was made. This will help future generations of Americans appreciate the self-correcting nature of their democratic process.

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