AOC’s Concentration Camp Comparison Offers Us A Chance To Learn From History

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., gestures while while testifying before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, Friday, July 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared US immigrant detention facilities on the southern border to “concentration camps“, right-wing pundits and some conservative Jewish groups lined up to denounce her. 

“She needs to go to the Holocaust Museum and see what a concentration camp is,” said Louisiana Senator John Kennedy. The United States Holocaust Museum also issued a statement rejecting an analogy between the Holocaust and the treatment of immigrants and refugees on the Southern border.  

Ocasio-Cortez is right though. The United States is housing immigrants in concentration camps. More, the Holocaust should be used as an analogy when discussing large scale human rights violations. If we don’t want the Holocaust to ever happen again, we need to identify steps that move us towards genocide, not just wait until those atrocities have already occurred.

It’s important to recognize that Ocasio-Cortez is correct in her definition; the internment facilities at the southern border are concentration camps. Sociology professor Richard Lachmann at the University of Alabama, SUNY, told Newsweek that a concentration camp was simply “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.” When you put civilians in prison because of who they are, rather than because of what they’ve done, you’re operating a concentration camp.

The term has been used to describe British internment camps during the Boer War. It also describes American internment camps for people of Japanese descent during World War II.  Actor George Takei, who was imprisoned by the US because he was Japanese,  agreed with Ocasio-Cortez that “we are operating concentration camps.”

Conditions in concentration camps tend to be terrible. That’s not a coincidence or a mistake. Such camps are a deliberate tactic, intended to define a certain group (in this case migrants from Latin America) as existing outside the rule of law and outside a community of sympathy. Once you have declared someone to be a criminal based on their identity, it’s a small step to treating them as if they are unworthy of dignity or of life.

Sure enough, and unsurprisingly, the conditions in the immigrant detention centers are terrible. Cells are often standing room only. Children face “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food,” according to Dolly Lucio Sevier, a doctor who examined imprisoned children. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited a facility, one woman she talked to said that guards had told them to drink out of the toilet, since there was no other water available.  Federal agents dispute this claim.  Instead, they say, portable water fountains are placed above toilets for lack of room.

It’s true that officials in US concentration camps are not lining up immigrants and shooting them, the way that Nazis ultimately murdered Jewish people in their camps. But that doesn’t mean there have been no casualties. Before December 2018, it had been 10 years since any children had lost their lives in Customs and Border Protection. Since then, three children have died.

History tells us that there will be more deaths as long as we keep these camps open. The lesson of the Holocaust was not that only the Nazis ever used concentration camps. Rather, the lesson of the Holocaust was that concentration camps are a key tool on the path to ethnic cleansing and genocide, and that they are designed to torment and violate the human rights of those held in them. The Nazis demonstrated, once and for all, that concentration camps are tools of violence, wherever they are erected.

Some people, including some Jewish people, disagree with that assessment. They are wary of cheapening the horror of the Holocaust by comparing it to other atrocities or other human rights violations. To say that the US treatment of immigrants is similar to the Nazi treatment of Jews in any way is, from this perspective, to insult those who suffered in Germany. In their view, we make sure the Holocaust never happens again by remembering it as a unique event that is only to be discussed and deployed in the most extreme circumstances of mass genocide of Jewish people.

But if we are only allowed to invoke “never again” after the worst has happened again, then “never again” has little preventative power, and even less meaning. How can you worry about something happening again if you insist that it was a unique event which has no analogy to anything happening now? If the Holocaust doesn’t speak to our present day, then we’ve effectively forgotten it.

Obviously, you want to be careful about how you reference the Nazi genocide. It’s wrong to use Holocaust analogies to refer to trivial events unconnected to human rights abuses. You shouldn’t use Holocaust analogies to describe a bad lunch, or bad weather, or, I’d argue, to describe women exercising their right to abortion. You shouldn’t use Holocaust analogies lightly.

But when the government uses tactics associated with the Holocaust in order to target a group (immigrants) that Hitler notoriously loathed, then using Holocaust analogies is imperative. If we take “never again” seriously, that means that we stand against bigotry, and against human rights violations, and against concentration camps because we know where all of those things can eventually lead if they are not vigorously opposed.

The Holocaust is not a shrine to be carefully preserved outside of history. It’s an atrocity that was committed by human beings, much like us, using tools that are still available, and targeting victims—leftists, queer people, the disabled, immigrants, people of color, and Jews—who are still vilified and targeted today. If we don’t want to be like the Nazis, we need to remember what the Nazis did and what led to that point, and we need to speak up as soon as we see ourselves dusting off those uniforms.  It’s true that not every concentration camp is Auschwitz. But Auschwitz should be a lesson to never construct concentration camps again.