A Guy Named Fred

by Rick Moen

Last year, a man I would dearly love to have met, who once — no, twice — upheld the values and best traditions of my country when that was most needed, finally died among his family in Marin County. His name was Fred.

Now, for those readers who are not from the United States, the stereotype of a "Fred" is someone who is unassuming, affable, reliable, and a regular guy. A "Fred" would be a guy who gives others lifts to the bowling alley, the hard-working fellow who works behind the counter at your neighbourhood pharmacy or hardware store, and so on. You wouldn't expect heroics from a "Fred", except maybe the quiet, effective type.

Fred Korematsu of San Leandro, California was all that: As a young man in 1942, he was helping with his parents' plant nursery and working as a welder in the shipyards when a disreputable Presidential Executive Order and two outright illegal (and contradictory) military orders tried to put him in prison, having done nothing wrong — out of a poorly aimed and lawless panic about "imminent danger" and threats to "national security".

Fred said "The hell you say", sued on obvious Fifth Amendment grounds all the way up to the US Supreme Court, lost on the basis of suppressed evidence by a 6-3 vote that some of those six later regretted, won an overturn of that decision 39 years later — setting a precedent that any prosecutor suppressing evidence in that fashion would be disbarred — and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his deeds.

Fred insisted for 39 years that his conviction had been simply wrong and illegal, refusing to settle for the halfway measure of a formal pardon. As he pointed out in court, then at age 64, as long as his conviction still stood...:

"...any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing."

Long before his 1983 vindication, I'd felt a strong kinship for Fred: We're both named Frederick, both from the San Francisco Bay Area, both of immigrant families from countries we've never visited, both born of cultures with funny languages and a taste for fish, etc. Now, I'm no Fred but rather a Rick, and Fred's folks were American for far longer than mine — but, if Fred could be jailed merely for his foreign "origin", so can I.

And here's the main thing I wanted to focus people's minds on: They put a Fred in a concentration camp for no defensible reason, no sane reason, no remotely comprehensible reason — because of his ancestry. An all-American boy from suburban San Leandro who was helping run his parents' small business. A good guy. A classic "Fred".

That's just sick. You don't throw "Freds" in concentration camps for just being regular guys and not bothering anyone. You support them, and stand up for their rights, as they would for yours.

As a boy myself, I was so shocked when I fully understood Executive Order 9066 and Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt's illegal and absurd Public Proclamations No. 1 and 2 that I asked members of my parents' generation how that could have happened. Some wrote it off as madness, but no few of them dismissed my question with "You don't know what it was like."

I do know what it wasn't like: It wasn't like the United States of America. Sometimes it does take a Fred to point that out.

In 2004, at the age of 84, Fred pointed it out to the US Supreme Court a second time, filing an amicus curiae brief in the case of Rasul v. Bush. This time, they did listen, without obliging him to wait another 39 years. Shafiq Rasul, who like many others had been held for years without charge and without reason at Guantánamo Bay — the act of a lawless and arbitrary government junta — was allowed to go home to Britain.

So, I salute the spirit of Fred Korematsu, which I will respect always. If it can eventually reach the Scalia Court, there's still hope for Missouri Senator Carl Schurz's famous variant on Commodore Decatur's patriotic toast: "My country right or wrong — when right to be kept right, when wrong, to be made right."

Copyright (C) 2006, Rick Moen