Oh, what a controversy Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stirred up, referring to US immigrant detention facilities as “concentration camps”! Oh, what a wave of pearl clutching and shocked admonishment! How dare she? Is she calling the Republican Party a bunch of Nazis? Is she comparing conditions on the southern border to those that existed at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen? Good God, has she gone mad? Doesn’t she know any history? Was she drunk or something when she tweeted that out?
Chris Hayes, an MSNBC pundit whom I like very much, opined via tweet that while the detention facilities being administered by the Customs and Border Patrol were indeed horrible places, a term like “concentration camps” is too emotionally charged, and distracts from the real debate. Citing “Godwin’s Law”, the famous observation by Mike Godwin that any exchange on the internet must sooner or later degenerate into mudslinging that invokes the Nazis, Chris suggested that maybe a term like “detention camps” would be preferable.
To which Godwin himself replied:
Yes, it’s a charged term, and yes, by definition it’s completely accurate. Auschwitz, Dachau and the rest, usually referred to as “concentration camps” in the public discourse, were in fact death camps, and not necessarily the sort of place historians refer to when they use the former, apparently nerve-rattling term. Concentration camps, as properly defined, have a long history, going back to before the turn of the 20th Century, and have been used all over the world to do what their name implies, take an unwanted group of people, usually singled out on religious or ethnic grounds, or for espousing the wrong politics, and fence them into a concentrated mass somewhere where they can’t be a nuisance. They were widely used by the British during the Boer War, in order to cut off the Boer insurgents from their rural support structure. This is one of them:
The internment camps into which America herded its ethnic Japanese population during WW II were concentration camps too, an abomination the like of which one might have thought would never be seen again in the land of the free. They’re at use today in China, containing thousands from the native Muslim population known as the Uyghars, and of course in North Korea, where tens, maybe hundreds of thousands – we just don’t know – are being worked to death and murdered. In fact, since about 1890 or so there’s never been a time when there wasn’t at least one concentration camp operating somewhere, whether you called it a “relocation camp”, a “gulag”, or a “re-education camp”. Chris himself knows this, as just prior to tweeting his reaction to AOC he had the author of this widely-praised book on his show to talk about it:
Chris was only trying to tone down the rhetoric so people could have a discussion that wouldn’t get too heated, but that misses the point – this discussion is supposed to get heated, it needs to get heated, but fast. As Mike Godwin said:
AOC used the offensive term very deliberately, first because it’s appropriate, but second to offend, you’re damned right to offend, to finally get people’s attention and start them talking about the complete horror show now being perpetrated by the CBP. For God’s sake, children are being separated from their families and packed by the hundred into inadequate, overcrowded, icy-cold hellholes where they sleep on concrete floors under bright lights that are never turned off, and don’t even get to brush their teeth or bathe. Lawyers who’ve gained access paint pictures that belong in dystopian fiction: twelve and fourteen year old girls doing their best to take care of infants, toddlers wallowing in their own filth, clothes caked with mucus and excrement, and an ungodly stench of a sort that only results from something that civilized, decent people are never supposed to countenance. What do you call these windowless dog pens? Even a term like that underplays the cruelty – stray mutts get substantially better treatment at the average pound, and that isn’t hyperbole, not even in the slightest. Americans treat dogs better.
Inevitably, as in all such places, everywhere throughout history, medical problems go unattended, malnutrition sets in, communicable diseases start to spread, and people start to die. It’s happening. Little kids have died already.
So yeah, the fiery young representative from the 14th District decided to start a verbal shit storm and wake people up, and she didn’t even have to exaggerate to do it. It made all sorts of people flustered and upset – good. Now pay attention. Do something. If we saw this happening in Cuba or Russia, we’d be hollering about the endemic cruelty of totalitarian states. What has become of the United States if this is going to be tolerated in the 21st Century? Is this the death-knell of a dream that once pulled millions to her shores? Are they really prepared to treat anybody, let alone refugees seeking asylum, with this level of inhumane contempt? Really?
Pundits like Chuck Todd, the meathead, might have tut-tutted and vented their spleens at AOC, but there were many who saw the truth of her outraged criticism. Among her most vocal supporters in the often deranged Twitterverse were the children of Holocaust survivors, and those who were little kids when they were themselves put into the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s. They know exactly what to make of these unholy prisons, because they’ve seen them before: they’re concentration camps.
Oh, and if you can’t picture this guy in a black peaked cap with a skull and crossbones emblem, you’re the one who doesn’t know jack about history, and how tragedies like the Shoah don’t happen all at once, but incrementally, one step at a time, while all of us become inured to cruelty and turn away, and men not so very far removed from this soulless White House darling plan the next escalation: