As a Jew that is aware of the history of anti-Semitism, I can confidently say I don't want the disenfranchised, marginalized people, or minorities to be oppressed by a government, certainly to the extent to which Nazi Germany carried out their atrocities. We should hold governments accountable to human rights abuses. At the same time, when we are evaluating a problem or issue, we should do so with a clear perspective in order to make accurate comparisons and assess the situation. As such, I would like to do two main things here. One, answer the technical question of "What is a concentration camp?" Two, determine whether using the term "concentration camp" is appropriate for the current refugee situation on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Technical Definition of "Concentration Camp"
What is a concentration camp? You would think that it would be an agreed upon, unambiguous term. Not so much. To illustrate that point, here are some definitions:
U.S. Holocaust Museum: A camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.
This definition is broad enough to arguably include the detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border. Let's look at another definition.
Webster's Dictionary: A place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard, used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution and other prisoners
This definition could also cover AOC's assertion, although I will cover the latter clause in the next section. Here is a definition that does not make it so clear.
Encyclopedia Britannica: Internment centre for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order. Persons are placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial...They are also to be distinguished from refugee camps or detention and relocation centers for the temporary accommodation of large numbers of displaced persons (own emphasis added).
Two things with Encyclopedia Britannica's definition. One is that such a center would need to violate due process, a point that is also made in the U.S. Holocaust Museum definition. Two, and more importantly, Encyclopedia Britannica is exercising some nuance by distinguishing between concentration camps and camps temporarily holding refugees or asylum seekers (more on that momentarily). This gives some leeway to argue that the detention centers on the U.S.-Mexican border are not necessarily concentration camps.
Is It Appropriate to Call the Detention Centers "Concentration Camps?"
We can get into a debate about the technicalities of what is or is not a concentration center. As illustrated above, one could select and finesse a definition for or against the claim. But here's the thing with that. AOC's words do not exist in a vacuum or stay in an ivory tower. It doesn't matter that the term "concentration camp" predates the Second World War or that concentration camps were used during the Boers War. Words have meaning outside of a technical sense, and even if you want to argue that the detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border are technically concentration camps, it's irrelevant. AOC made her statement in a political context.
The truth is that for many Americans post-WWII, the phrase "concentration camp" evokes images of Nazi death camps. This isn't the first time in language in which a word can technically mean one thing but colloquially mean another. AOC is perfectly cognizant of that reality. She knew that because in her video, she said that "'Never again' means something." The phrase "Never Again" was used after World War II as a slogan conveying the message that we do not want a repeat of the Holocaust, which took the lives of 6 million Jews and over 5 million non-Jews in state-sponsored genocide. This is not the first time that AOC has pulled such a stunt. Last November, AOC compared the migrant caravan scenario to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. AOC has no qualms invoking Holocaust imagery and making analogies to the Holocaust to advance a political agenda.
If you are going to evoke the Holocaust out of sincerity instead of trying to score political points by exploiting Jewish trauma, you better be damn sure that your comparison is more like the Holocaust than not. Yes, these detention centers have some similarities from the Nazi concentration camps. They are both government-operated camps in which the detainees are not free to leave. Both the detention policies target specific groups of people. In both cases, children are being separated from their parents. One could argue that in both cases, the living conditions are absolute squalor.
Yes, there are similarities between the detention centers on the U.S.-Mexican border and the Nazi concentration camps. However, the reality is that the differences between the two are much more pronounced than the similarities. Nazi concentration camps existed for the purpose of cleansing the world of what the Nazis deemed undesirables, including, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and the physically disabled. There was a clear genocidal intent with the Nazi concentration camps. In Nazi concentration camps, the Nazis were actively murdering its detainees, either through gas chambers, mass executions, or starving and working the prisoners to death. There were those in Nazi concentration camps were experimented on by doctors. The ones who weren't killed right away or being experimented on were forced into slave labor. There is a reason why the Holocaust is used as the prime example of human rights atrocities: because it was that despicable and deplorable.
Say what you want about Trump's immigration policy or his detention centers, but none of the aforementioned features in the previous paragraph can be attributed to the situation on the U.S.-Mexican border. The migrants crossing the border are apprehended and detained. As CNN points out, the detainees stay until HHS can find someone with whom to stay. After their stay, the average of which is 48 days, they stay with someone else until their case could be processed. These refugees are not being detained because of a lack of due process, but due to a backlog in processing their cases. This last bit is important because it would arguably not make the detention centers concentration centers by the previously mentioned definitions. If you want to make a more accurate analogy, compare them to the Japanese-American internment camps run by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration (Yes, that is the same FDR that inspired AOC so much that she created the Green New Deal).
When using Holocaust imagery, AOC is minimizing the evils of the Holocaust. The world has unfortunately seen similar atrocities to the Holocaust since World War II that could be accurately analogized. Joseph Stalin killed 20 million or more. Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward killed as many as 50 million people in China. Pol Pot killed nearly two million in Cambodia. There are also the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur.
"Never Again" should not only be reserved for the Holocaust. Conversely, if "Never Again" simply becomes shorthand for "I don't agree politically, therefore I am going to evoke Hitler," not only do you diminish atrocities (when looking at it from the overall arc of history), but it becomes a lot more difficult to take your argument (in this case, reforming the detention centers) seriously. I want to elaborate on this point a little more. When I wrote about the #MeToo movement two years ago, one of my criticisms was lumping together sexual assault/rape and sexual harassment. Yes, rape and sexual harassment are both morally wrong. However, one is more morally problematic and reprehensible than the other. It becomes a question of magnitude.
Let's apply that concept to the detention centers. You can argue that the way that Trump is going about detaining Central American refugees is morally wrong. Last year, I scrutinized Trump's family separation policy, and went as far as calling it a part of his fear-mongering immigration policy. As recent as earlier this month, I criticized Trump for stupidly trying to use tariffs to solve the refugee issue. I can and do criticize Trump's usage of detention centers and his seeming lack of desire to help out refugees without evoking the Holocaust to make a false equivalence. That being said, let's ask ourselves some questions:
- Is the treatment of the Central American refugees in these detention centers a human rights abuse? Yes. After all, government policy doesn't need to be at the level of the Holocaust to be morally wrong. The United States should have learned its lesson from the Japanese-American internment camps from World War II.
- Is being placed in an imperfectly managed detention center while waiting for asylum applications to be processed anything like the horrors of such concentration camps as Auschwitz or Dachau? Not even close. Again, there is a reason why Nazi Germany is infamously in the history books.
- Does this mean that we should do nothing? No. Something should be done to speed up the applications and provide the asylum seekers with better conditions while they wait, and to make sure their dignity is preserved in the process.
Some people say that we are spending needless time on the semantics. Yes, I believe we should be spending energy reversing an exceptionally misinformed refugee detention policy. At the same time, the fact that we even need to be discussing these semantics is indicative of how out of whack U.S. civil society is. Forget for a moment that Obama also had detention centers during his administration. It is becoming more difficult in U.S. society to have a discussion about policy without evoking Holocaust imagery, and thusly implying that the "side you don't agree with" is a literal Nazi. If political discourse has reached a point where one side literally views the other as Hitler for simply disagreeing, thereby using the logical fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerum, then it is no wonder the U.S. has this level of political polarization.
I'm not going to pretend as if there were some magical time in which everyone respectfully disagreed because no such time existed. Politicians have used such discourse since the beginning of time. Using hyperbole or antagonistic, divisive rhetoric is done by all those in power, regardless of ideological inclination. I ask that we learn how to talk with those with whom we disagree and work across the aisle in the hopes of making discourse civil again.