Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Twain’s insight seemed appropriate Tuesday in La Plata County Court, where Animas High School students relitigated Korematsu v. the United States, a 1944 Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of interning 115,000 Americans of Japanese descent against their will.
The subject of the teenagers’ mock trial was ambitious: Korematsu is among the most painful cases in American legal history. Like Plessy v. Ferguson – which upheld racial segregation – legal scholars now view it as one of the most morally embarrassing.
Yet Animas High School junior Rachel Elizabeth Gonzales, playing the role of a U.S. government attorney, defended Japanese internment, describing Pearl Harbor as a cataclysmic event that justified an aggressive reimagining of individual rights.
“The purpose of the bombing was clear: to cripple the country at its core,” she said. “This country lost its ability to feel safe in our own homes. Not since the British in the Revolutionary War have we been so boldly targeted on our own soil.”
Brave same world
The old line, “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” is by now cliché of action-movie dialogue.
But Animas High School students said they saw parallels – both intellectual and rhetorical – between the U.S. government’s decision to intern Japanese citizens and the debates they’ve grown up with as children of post-Sept. 11 America: What is the correct trade-off between keeping the nation safe and protecting individuals’ constitutionally guaranteed freedoms? Is the threat of terrorism enough to justify the U.S. government’s maintenance of Guantanamo Bay prison, reliance on NSA electronic taping, enhanced interrogation techniques and racial profiling?
Gonzales, an Animas High School junior, argued the government’s case in Korematsu – and often mimicked the logic, and even the idiom, of former Attorney General Robert Gonzalez defending racial profiling.
She rejected accusations that the government was racist, framing the government’s internment of Japanese-Americans as the only reasonable military response given America’s then-cruel and unpredictable enemy.
But after mauling a few witnesses for the defense (criminals should pray she goes to medical school), Gonzales said in an interview that she’d chosen to defend the government’s case to challenge herself; she personally thought its position in Korematsu was indefensible.
“Obviously, I don’t think internment camps are ever justified,” she said. “But the more research I did, the more I got into the mind-set of prosecutors, the more I understood why it happened.”
When a reporter pointed out that her language in defending Japanese internment overlapped with that of the Bush and Obama administrations in defending national-security measures, she nodded.
“It’s interesting. What we’re arguing about is times of war because the Constitution is so concrete about people’s rights in other cases. War is when it becomes blurred,” she said.
Preparing a verdict
AHS humanities teacher Ashley Carruth said when her class began preparing for the Korematsu mock trial in December, they briefly touched on Sept. 11, war hysteria and the U.S. government’s “War on Terror” – matters that have defined American foreign and domestic policy since her students became conscious.
By focusing on the Korematsu case, Carruth said she hoped her students would be able to view the U.S. government’s reaction to national crises from beyond the politically raw vantage point of today’s headlines.
“Korematsu is about the tension between freedom and security in democratic society,” she said. “The bigger picture I want them to understand is this tension between national security and individual liberty, the Constitution, how it works and how hard it can be to balance those things.”
Carruth said that while high school debates can discourage listening and encourage oratorical obfuscation, the format of a trial forced students to engage deeply with the opposition’s point of view, evidence and overall strategy.
“I want (my students) to really develop critical thinking and rhetorical skills” as well as “going through the historical inquiry process,” she said.
The courtroom format rewarded quick thinking. AHS junior Chase Pierson – who had presided over the mock trial as a judge – asked Judge Martha Minot, who was attending as an observer, “Where are you a judge?”
“This courtroom!” Minot said, as the room burst into laughter. “You’re sitting in my courtroom, in my chair and wearing my robe!”
Pierson, quite undone, quickly responded, “I was wondering why it smelled so good.”
Minot said students had done exceptionally well.
“They’ve put the work in, and they’re very aware of what the legal issues are,” she said.
In an interview after closing arguments, Emily Wieser, who’d adeptly argued for the defense, said she had found the Korematsu mock trial soul-stirring.
Wieser said she knew her teacher would say Korematsu, “is about national security over personal freedom.”
“But on a personal level, for me, this project was more exemplary of the courage it takes to stand up to the United States government, and how much we’re led to believe that to go against the authority of the United States is wrong,” she said.