The Wrong Argument Over Concentration Camps

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of concentration camp

a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the 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 of Jews and other prisoners

There are times when I believe we are having the wrong argument. Case in point would be the recent dust up over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referring to the conditions of detained immigrants on our southern border as “concentration camps.” It was no surprise to me that those on the right (including the man most needing to shut his mouth, Steve King) would negatively pile onto Cortez’s assertion. What did arrive somewhat unexpectedly was the pushback from the left which argued that “concentration camp” was an inappropriate description for the containment areas that immigrants are currently living in under the Trump administration.

This is a sensitive subject for many people – liberals included. So, I get the consternation over the use of the term…to a degree.

Before I get to that, let me state that Cortez is not my favorite politician. I find her a bit maddening, in fact. Her natural political talent is off the charts. Few of her fellow pols – if any – can move a crowd the way she does. And on the subjects in her wheelhouse, she can be vibrantly on point. However, she also sets herself out to sea when she roams into topics beyond her – as of this moment – relatively narrow lane. Some of this will get fixed with time and experience, but it has created a number of awkward moments where her enthusiasm has far outpaced her expertise. As well, I find her not-so-secret secret intentions to primary other Democrats to be shortsighted. That’s not to say there are no dems worthy of challenge (Tulsi Gabbard and Dan Lipinski, come on down!), it’s more that I find her lack of recognition that not all states and districts will support a candidate as liberal she to be confounding and naïve. The whole country is not, and will never be, Brooklyn.

However, at least definitionally, she is correct here.

Let’s look at the first half of the Merriam-Webster definition of “concentration camp”:

“a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard”

By that description (which is matched near verbatim by other dictionary and encyclopedic sources), she is correct. The people in these facilities along the border are refugees of an ethnic minority who are confined under armed guard.

Where Cortez got into trouble is in the second half of the Merriam-Webster entry:

“used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners”

The thing to note is the latter portion of the Webster entry refers to an example of a concentration camp. What it makes clear in the preceding section is that Nazi concentration camps are not the sole example. More that it is the most infamous one.

On one level, it’s easy to see why people might take offense. Cortez is a lightning rod. She has trafficked in hyperbole, or, if you are less charitable, incendiary language before. Would it have been better had she referred to the enclosures as “internment camps,” which are commonly associated with the rounding up and detainment of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II? Perhaps. But as actor, social media gadfly, and former Japanese internment camp detainee, George Takei recently pointed out, “I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.” Takei went on to point out that the border confinement is actually worse than what he suffered through because at least he wasn’t separated from his family. Furthermore, when Takei was interviewed by CBS News in 2013 about his days of confinement and said this, “We were all concentrated, densely concentrated,” he said.

The problem with the use of the term in this instance has less to do with whether it was correctly used, but rather with its Nazi association. No, there are no swastikas, or death marches, or gas chambers in this iteration. Thank heaven for small favors, I suppose.

But here is the real problem with this whole discussion: while we are taking to social media arguing over whether Cortez used the right term or not, there are children who have been separated from their families, sleeping on concrete floors under an aluminum blanket, without a toothbrush or even a bar of soap – items a Trump Administration lawyer has argued they don’t need (see video at the end of this article). They are literally in cages. Most of us would (I hope) treat our dogs better.

Yet, here we are whinging over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of language. Do I think she could have been more careful? Sure. Do I think she was trying to get noticed? Absolutely. Do I think it’s possible she was angling for additional attention for the issue and herself? Possibly.

But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I care about vulnerable men, women, and children fleeing drug lords and oppression, hoping for a better life, and arriving at the border after a treacherous journey only to be incarcerated in a poorly run prison facility. Where they, as a people, are concentrated. 

In camps.

If your consternation over the use of what you deem to be an incorrect use of terminology outweighs your concern about what this country is doing to those people, now viewing life through a chain link fence, then we know the moral decency you pretend to have on Twitter is not real. 

Here is the reality. If you are a child in a cage, separated from your parents, going without decent sanitation, nutrition, or medical care, an argument over whether you are in a “concentration camp” or not is the very last of your worries.

Author: David Phillips