February 19 marks the anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment during World War II of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. In light of developments in our nation today, it is important to reflect on that sad moment in our nation’s history. It is for that reason that I wrote this series of essays on the Japanese internment.
Americans tend to assume that because of our long-standing commitment to civil liberties we are reasonably safe from the dangers of authoritarian rule. Such an assumption would be dangerously wrong. In fact, throughout our history, in times of real or perceived crisis, we have repeatedly collapsed in our commitment to individual freedom, often aggressively stifling dissent and endangering the central precepts of our democracy. In order to cast aside our naïve assumption that “it can’t happen here,” and to understand our vulnerability to the danger of authoritarianism today, it is necessary to recall the mistakes of our past.
Today, in the era of Trump – a president who understands nothing of our history or of the necessary preconditions of our democracy – we face a truly serious threat to the rule of law, to our democracy, and to our constitutional freedoms. We must not be complacent. As Justice Brandeis once observed, “those who won our independence . . . knew that . . . fear breeds repression” and that “courage is the secret of liberty.”
To protect our democracy in our time, we need political leaders who know right from wrong; federal judges who will stand fast against the furies of the age; members of the bar and the academy who will help us see ourselves clearly; members of the media who will fulfill their fundamental responsibility to keep our leaders honest; an informed public who will value not only their own liberties, but the liberties of others; and, perhaps most of all, elected officials with the wisdom to know excess when they see it and the courage to preserve liberty when it is imperiled. We shall see. It would be a grave mistake to think that “it can’t happen here.”
Geoffrey R. Stone is the Edward Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago School of Law. He also has served as the Dean of the Law School and the Provost of the University of Chicago.