Last week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described US southern detention centers as “concentration camps”. Ilhan Omar doubled down on this term, defending AOC, because “there are camps and people are being concentrated”. The purely verbal interpretation of the term, which ignores the weight and context the common use of it carries, is similar to someone characterizing Boris Johnson as White Nationalist because he is white and carries a nationalist perspective on UK’s place in the EU. Despite the overly simplistic interpretation of the term, its usage in context of the border detention camps got traction. In a fairly popular piece Anna Lind-Guzik, who notes that she’s a Jewish historian whose father and grandmother escaped the holocaust, says that using the term with regards to border detention centers is not just appropriate but mandatory. To support the claim, Lind-Guzik notes that the term has been used much earlier than by the Nazis, and that the “atrocities” at the border require using it to deescalate a situation that in her mind can rise to the horrors of Auschwitz. Similarly Leonid Bershidsky, says that AOC wasn’t wrong since in history there were mild forms of concentration camps designated to keep “superfluous and bothersome people” out of the way.
Tracking the historic origin of the term “concentration camps” is an attempt to launder a wrong terminology in retrospect. If AOC would have stopped 100 random people and asked them “what are concentration camps?” they would have accurately described the Nazi camps. Googling the term (you now have to filter out the period post AOC’s comparison) would yield almost solely Nazi concentration camps. Merriam-Webster notes in its definition: “used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners”.
Regardless of historic roots, common use of this term clearly refers to Nazi concentration camps. A place used to hold “undesirables” whose sole crime was the undesired social group they belonged to (Jews, LGBT and others). Camps also included prisoners of war detained as part of the Nazi conquering efforts. The common use of the term, refers to camps where “undesirables” were deliberately maltreated, starved, transported in cattle trains, overworked, and executed if unfit for labor – all meticulously planned by a government, under a racial ideology. Border detention centers are in no way or form similar to the Nazi concentration camps, the only thing they share is the ‘concentration of people’, which any jail would share as well.
Even when examining some of the cases noted by Anna Lind-Guzik, a common theme can clearly be seen. All historic examples of concentration camps were based on some clearly identified social “undesirable” group within the country. Whether it’s the Soviet camps which primarily served as political oppression against defiants of the regime, US camps against American-Japanese, or Uighur Muslim population in China. All purposely targeted specific groups within their countries with terrible acts. Alternatively, some of the colonial examples in the 18th and 19th century were part of a conquering effort, using the camps as a military tactic. Calling the southern detention centers “concentration camps” would make it the 1st time in history the term is used to describe the jailing of a group of people who are actively trying to enter the jailing country that mistreats them, as opposed to being persecuted in their origin country, and all this takes place while in that “terrible” country there are millions of people with identical ethnic and national origin who are absolutely free.
Border detention centers are temporary jails, not government planned work camps targeting Latin Americans. They are jails designated to process individuals suspected of illegally entering the US. And while the conditions in those camps could be poor and worthy of criticism and protest – they are not concentration camps in the common use of the term. Calling them so, diminishes the victims of past horrors, and more importantly, is counterproductive to the idea AOC is trying to promote. The term is so disconnected, that it would hardly convince anyone supporting harsh immigration policy, and is more likely to cause one to brush it off than become a supporter of the important cause.