Six months in Congress has not dimmed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s talent for flippant demagoguery. After helping to scuttle Amazon’s expansion plans in New York City — at a cost of about 25,000 jobs — and confusing a tax abatement with an outright subsidy, she recently called immigrant detention centers at the southern border “concentration camps.” When some people complained, she tweeted, “If that makes you uncomfortable, fight the camps — not the nomenclature.” How about both?
The internment centers at the border are bad — granted. People have died in them, some of them children. Sleeping conditions can be harsh, and it was White House policy to separate children from their parents — an unconscionable cruelty so patent that even President Trump backed down. The president himself agreed Sunday that conditions at some centers are “terrible.”
Still, no one is being held for political, ideological or religious reasons. No one is being whipped and made to work until dead from exhaustion. There is no crematorium, and no one is being crucified upside down as they were at Buchenwald, where a nearby area was called the “singing forest,” so named for the screams of the dying.
Naturally, some academics jumped to the defense of AOC, as Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is often called. They pointed out that long before the Nazis used the term, it had been applied to the camps the British established in South Africa during the Boer War. So true. It was also pointed out that the term has sometimes been applied to the internment camps in which U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II. So true again. Still, no random executions, no torture and no electrified fencing. Atrocious, but not a concentration camp.
Ever since the end of World War II, the term has come to mean unimaginable bestiality where untold numbers of people died — so many that no one knows the true number. The camps that the U.S. military forced German civilians to see for their own eyes were not even the worst. They had originally been established to incarcerate and punish political dissidents, communists, homosexuals, priests and others — and then, increasingly, Jews. The worst camps were located not in Germany, but in German-occupied Poland — the extermination camps of Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka. They were used mainly to kill Jews.
It’s never clear to me whether AOC knows what she’s talking about — or even cares. She’s a wonderful packager, reducing complicated issues to slogans, and, like Trump, she never backs down. But nomenclature, as she put it, is not a trivial matter. During my Army days, it was lesson No. 1 in basic training, because if you don’t know the name of things, you can’t identify them. “Get that thing ” simply will not do in combat.
It is the same with life itself. Characterizing U.S. internment facilities as concentration camps so distorts the issue of what to do with the border that discussion, never mind solutions, is not possible. The debate becomes about what to call the thing, not the thing itself. More significantly, it compresses the issue so that it becomes ridiculously simplified: Are you for concentration camps, or are you opposed? Will you tolerate them, or will you not? In the parlance of the picket line, “Which side are you on?”
This penchant for oversimplification is not limited to AOC. The word “survivor,” which once had a meaning associated with life or death, is now applied to almost anyone who’s been victimized in any way. The word “victim” has plenty of power. Let survivors survive in peace.
Many years ago, I wrote about Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer who had denounced the trivialization of the Holocaust. He directed his ire at people who used “Nazis” to describe traffic cops, or who referred to the deaths of more than three people as “genocide.” Also, as I noted in that column, Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister at the time, had ridiculously referred to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “Arab SS.” Trump now does that sort of thing all the time — the Mexican people, after all, are not “rapists,” and the New York Times is not guilty of “treason.”
Such language does not clarify, it inflames and, in the case of the Holocaust, it is dismissive. As is AOC’s invocation of the term “concentration camps.” It encourages people to take sides over a false issue: Concentration camps, yes or no? Let’s see some hands. But there are no concentration camps on the border — only loose and provocative language.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.