When is it OK to call a concentration camp a concentration camp?
If you answered, “When it’s a concentration camp,” you clearly weren’t paying attention to the Mighty Wurlitzer of Beltway social media last week.
The reedy first note was an Instagram live video in which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from New York, referred to federal detention centers for migrants at the southern border as “concentration camps.”
That kicked off a reaction of predictable dudgeon from Republican counterparts such as Rep. Lynn Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, who tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez should learn “some actual history,” and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who opined that AOC (as the freshman congresswoman’s fans call her) should apologize.
The subtext — or not-so-sub text — was that AOC was slighting Jews and the historically unique Jewish suffering of the Holocaust.
Indeed, some Jews and some historians suggested AOC was out of line. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, tweeted a message that seemed consonant with this criticism, addressing AOC with the message, “Learn about concentration camps,” and a link to a page on its website.
Still other historians and other commentators, including many prominent Jews, defended her characterization and decried the use of the Holocaust as a bludgeon. Concentration camps are not equivalent to death camps, many argued, and such camps existed and were called such at least as far back as the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century.
Here’s what actor George Takei tweeted: “I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.” He was referring to the internment camps set up to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Like so many Twitter conflagrations, this one may generate more heat than light. Ocasio-Cortez’ mode of delivery was part of the problem. Her wording, crafted primarily for pointedness, failed to respect the emotions that she was certain to rile.
Here’s her relevant tweet: “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.”
The latter portion of the sentence is factual. No one would want to be huddled with hundreds of others under bridges or in canvas tents, sectioned off by chain link fencing, often overseen by armed federal agents.
But the term “concentration camp” clearly was meant to conjure memories of the camps Nazis used in Europe to carry out the genocide of Jews and Roma people, as well as to punish and kill Poles, political prisoners and those deemed undesirable.
A semantic debate is at play — in which AOC is on solid ground — but there is also the ethical question of whether it’s permissible to allude to the Holocaust to call out deeds and attitudes that don’t rise, or rather sink, to the standard of that singular set of crimes against Jews.
I believe Ocasio-Cortez wishes to advance understanding of the horrific ways that human beings have stripped others of their rights and dignity through internment, work camps, concentration camps, reservations for indigenous peoples, and now the migrant detention centers.
We’ve heard those stories recounted in the days after her first remarks, both from the victims and from historians who have spent their careers trying to understand how societies creep toward such extremes.
Meanwhile, the Republicans’ dudgeon is wholly unconvincing and a transparent attempt, as one observer put it, to “weaponize” Jewish sensitivities on the subject.
The challenge now is to move beyond semantics actually do something about the government-sanctioned, taxpayer-subsidized warehousing of human beings, many of them children, some of whom have been separated in the cruelest way from their parents.
No one, Democrat or Republican, ought to be happy about this. We are edging toward standardizing this system, as evidenced by the announcement that Fort Sill in Oklahoma will soon be used to hold migrant children.
In typical fashion, Republicans have defended the Trump administration by pointing out that the Obama administration briefly sent immigrants to Fort Sill, which also interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. What they ignore is the scale, the motives and the intent.
I’d like to leave the last word to one of the scholars cited during the recent debates, Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps.”
Writing for GQ, Pitzer noted: “By the time a country gets to the point that those in power and a majority of their supporters embrace policies that back up virulent rhetoric and accept detention as the central response to a political or humanitarian problem, it is very difficult to undo.”
Is that where we are? I pray it isn’t.