Because we do not have public policy debates in this country, only political spats, much of the hottest Republican fury is over Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camps” to refer to government detention centers for asylum-seeking refugees and other migrants, centers repeatedly exposed as squalid, unsanitary, and overcrowded and in which, government lawyers argue, it is unnecessary to provide detained children with essentials such as soap or toothbrushes. Observers describe the camps as scenes of “sickness and filth” in which children are left to care for themselves and 155 adults are stuffed, standing-room only, into cells intended to hold 35. Multiple children have died, and many others are sick.
If the debate over whether these compounds qualify as “concentration camps” were confined merely to intellectual circles, it is quite certain nobody in Washington would give a damn, but having a sitting member of Congress use the term has sent her political opponents into a raging performative snit. One of the two political parties in this nation has gone far enough into the pit to defend the shocking conditions we are keeping migrant children in, but they will still shout indignantly if anyone else has the audacity to use charged words in describing the facilities.
So, inevitably, here we are.
For the future record, Newsweek went to the trouble of asking actual academic experts to settle the question. Those experts did not beat around the bush: Yes, the term concentration camp is accurate. Sociology professor Richard Lachmann defined the term as “any place where large numbers of people are held in poor conditions because of their nationality, ethnicity, religion or other characteristics rather than as individuals convicted of crimes.”
The current situation, therefore, fits. The poor conditions of the detention centers have been described by the administration and defenders as an intentional deterrent to future migrants. Those held have been charged with crossing the border without documentation, a misdemeanor, but have been convicted of no crime; many voluntarily presented themselves to American officials to request asylum. They are being held because of a new policy under which the Republican administration—not Trump, but each of his selected Republican functionaries—is choosing to imprison all asylum-seekers in an effort to frighten other refugees into abandoning attempts to exercise their legal right to seek asylum. It is deliberate.
Rachel Ida Buff was similarly blunt, not only noting that the term is “absolutely” correct, but also calling the conditions “torture” and “life endangerment.” Several of the academics interviewed noted the charged nature of the phrasing: In most public discourse, concentration camp has been used nearly exclusively to refer to Holocaust-era camps created by Nazi Germany, and used interchangeably with the term death camps, referring to facilities created specifically for carrying out mass murder. It is the product of “an ahistorical understanding of the Holocaust,” said history professor Anika Walke.
So yes: Those that charge the current American administration with running concentration camps as part of its “zero tolerance” internment of refugees will find backing in academic circles. They are concentration camps. One of the newest to be opened will be located on the site of a Japanese American internment camp at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma; it, too, will be a concentration camp. The dull-witted assertion that since we are not exactly as bad as Nazi Germany, our own violations of human dignity and human rights are defensible remains false, and malevolent.
But here we are, and it is because one of the two American political parties has chosen to implement, and defend, even this.