THE United States government last week presented the first $20,000 reparations checks to Japanese-Americans who had been interned in prison camps at the outset of World War II. This was an act of national reaffirmation. As Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said during the presentation ceremony in Washington, ``By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity, but rather reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution, and hence to its people.'' The internment of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 70 percent of them American citizens, was unquestionably wrong. It violated everything the US stands for in the way of liberty and due process of law. But relatively few Americans protested at the time.
War had come suddenly; further attack was anticipated. Even some who would later become bulwarks of civil liberty, such as then California Attorney General Earl Warren, supported the plan to round up and incarcerate those viewed as potentially traitorous. In the inflamed atmosphere of war, the injustice now so patent was hidden from view.
Beyond largely symbolic reparations to individuals who were stripped of their livelihoods, homes, and good names, the US must never again allow such a swerve from its principles. American society is built on common recognition of basic rights native to all individuals regardless of ethnicity. When conflict abroad results in violations of liberty at home, the defeat is as serious as any a foreign adversary can deal.
That was true of the internments of 1942; it's true of acts of violence or discrimination against Arab Americans today during the confrontation with Iraq.
The checks and apologies being given more than 60,000 Japanese Americans indicate a determination to face history and not repeat it. This process, which has been slow to begin following passage of enabling legislation two years ago, has so far reached only a handful of the most elderly survivors of the internment camps of the '40s. Budget pinching aside, it should be completed without further delay.