On 7 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, forcing the United States into the Second World War. Two and a half months later, on 19 February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order under which Japanese-American men, women and children would eventually be interned. The effect of the order was to require “persons of Japanese ancestry to report to assembly centers and providing for the detention of such persons.”
Born in January 1919 in Oakland, California, Toyosaburo Fred Korematsu was Japanese-American. Upon hearing of the war, Korematsu attempted to enlist in the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard, but was turned away because of his Japanese ancestry. To evade internment, Fred put himself through minor plastic surgery to alter his eyes in an attempt to look less Japanese, changed his name to Clyde Sarah, and claimed to be of Spanish and Hawaiian descent. On 30 May 1942, Korematsu was arrested and charged with evading internment. On 18 December 1944, by a split decision, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Executive Order and the internments under it.
In 1983, Korematsu’s wartime conviction was judicially set aside. This would have been considered vindication enough by most. On a visit to San Francisco in 1991, I met old Fred Korematsu. He had become a hero of the Civil Rights Movement. Witty and charming, his memory of the internment was still very much alive: “It never goes away”, he told me.
President Bill Clinton would later grant him the highest civilian honour available in his country – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fred died in 2005 but in 2011, the Solicitor-General of the United States filed a “formal admission of error”, an extraordinary step effectively acknowledging that the 1944 Supreme Court decision in Korematsu’s case was wrong and counter-productive.
The spreading footprint of mass-casualty terror in Nigeria is causing considerable damage everywhere. The toll in people killed, seriously injured, disappeared or abducted continues to rise by the day. The value in property lost is incalculable. The sight of human flesh minced and mangled beyond recognition by these agents of hate traumatizes survivors and communities. All around us, the evidence that this insurgency is taking a huge toll is unmistakable.
No responsible government confronted with this toll can afford to sit idle. Yet, as worrying as this physical and human damage is, it could easily be made worse by acts of commission.
In the face of this spreading footprint of casualties, government at various levels appears at last to be rolling out some responses. While some of the measures might be necessary, some are clearly wrong-headed and counter-productive.Some states of Nigeria have allegedly required all members of communities from named parts of Nigeria to register for identification. Others are sequestering travellers from parts of the country for “screening” with no sense of constraints or regard for the dignity of the people affected.
These measures targeted at or designed to profile specific communities with reference to their identities – or which unwittingly produce that effect – are almost certainly unlawful. They go against the provision in the Constitution of Nigeria that precludes discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, place of birth, or race.
More worryingly, these measures help the authors of mass-casualty terror against our country to achieve the lasting damage that they seek: the destruction of the fabrics that hold Nigeria together. They sow the seeds of suspicion, bad memory, and lingering injury that “never goes away”.
It must not be forgotten that those involved in these heinous atrocities are a minority among us. Any strategy designed to fight them successfully must begin by isolating them and limiting their numbers and location. We cannot allow them to grow in numbers, sympathies, or footprint.
There is no war more difficult to fight than a domestic insurgency precisely because it seeks to destroy the things that hold a people together; to sow mutual suspicions among people and to break bonds of community that sustain livelihoods and security. To win, those who direct such wars must always remember not to hand cheap victory to the hateful minority by granting them their divisive desires on a platter.
There are no ready manuals for how to make progress but there are some things that are best avoided. For instance, responses designed to target members of communities because of whom they are or where they come from should be avoided.
Measures that take food off the mouths or tables of poor people such as closing down stalls run by people from specific parts of the country deepen hatreds, push the victims to the other side and can only make the insurgents feel very good. We’re handing them on the cheap, the dismemberment of Nigeria that they seek.
As I watch the measures being rolled out around the country in response to this crisis I’m reminded of the words of Fred Korematsu. If we’re going to win this thing, we must stop doing those things whose effects “never go away”.
Odinkalu is the Chairman of the Governing Council of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)