The U.S. government currently has over 75,000 migrants in custody, according to the latest estimates. But what should Americans call the vast network of camps, cages, and prisons that are being used to hold these people? Many experts say “concentration camp” is accurate, but others insist the term should only be used for the Nazi death camps of the 1940s. The dispute has been raging on Wikipedia for over a year, and it’s gotten even worse in the past month.
Wikipedia’s “List of concentration and internment camps,” includes everything from the gulags of the Soviet Union to the Muslim camps of modern China. Some Americans object to putting the country’s current system of migrant camps on the same list, despite the fact that people report deplorable conditions in these facilities, including lack of food and limited access to clean water. The U.S. Department of Justice has even argued that kids in the camps shouldn’t be provided with toothpaste and soap, but some people on Wikipedia continue to argue that the term concentration camps shouldn’t be used outside of history books.
“Most people associate concentration camps with the systematic extermination of the Jews,” one Wikipedia contributor wrote on July 14. “Language and categorization that echoes this comparison is inappropriate. I think the American detention camps should not be included.”
The Wikipedia contributor then went on to make the argument that the migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border were coming “of their own free will,” which somehow meant that America’s camps didn’t count as concentration camps.
The Wikipedia entry for concentration camps highlights the current controversy and specifically calls out the comparison to Nazi death camps:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement that unequivocally rejected attempts to “create analogies between the Holocaust and other events,” but makes no mention of “concentration camps” more broadly than those found in Europe during World War II. In addition, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, in response to the tweets of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling the border detention facilities a concentration camp, tweeted a link to its web page about Nazi labor and concentration camp. “Learn about concentration camps,” it said.
Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, says that concentration camps, defined as the mass detention of civilians without trial and typically on the basis of identity, have been around in some form or another since the 1890s. And Pitzer argues that while the U.S. isn’t operating anything as horrific as the Nazi death camps, they still count as concentration camps.
“People tend to think of concentration camps only in the Nazi context,” Pitzer told Gizmodo over Twitter direct message. “And even in that context, they often don’t recall the concentration camp system that existed in Germany from 1933 forward, but think only of the death camp system that was created mid-war, which ended up being a central driver of genocide in the Holocaust.”
The average German citizen was very much aware of the concentration camps in the 1930s, before they explicitly became death camps in the 1940s, but oral histories reveal that many Germans thought any people who were sent to the camps before the war must be criminals and deserved to be there.
“Those extermination camps were singular in human history, but a four-decade tradition of concentration camps came before them,” Pitzer continued. “Early Nazi camps were part of that long tradition, and without all those prior camp systems Germany never would have gotten to Auschwitz.”
At least seven children have died in U.S. custody since the “concentration camp” controversy erupted a year ago, and that doesn’t count the children who got sick in custody and were released, but died later. In December, Homeland Security said it had previously been “more than a decade” since a child had died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody. Approximately 19 adult migrants have also died in U.S. custody since President Trump took power.
Many people who are currently editing the Wikipedia article on concentration camps seem to be confused on a number of issues, probably because Fox News is actively spreading disinformation about the camps. Some Americans are even under the impression that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the first to call them concentration camps, something that’s not true, as evidenced by Gizmodo’s own reporting from a year ago.
“To call these concentration camps is wrong and AOC can take her dogwhistling and shove it,” one Wikipedia editor wrote on July 1, 2019.
But Ocasio-Cortez only started calling them concentration camps just last month on June 18, 2019. The controversy over what to call them was sparked a full year earlier in June of 2018 when details about the Trump regime’s family separation policy were becoming better understood. The Trump regime, under the direction of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, were taking children away from their families as a punitive measure meant to discourage immigration. Experts on childhood development have called the policy psychological torture. Nielsen told Congress that the family separation policy didn’t exist, despite the fact that documents would later reveal she wasn’t telling the truth. Nielsen was never charged for lying to Congress.
Again, no one is arguing that America’s system of concentration camps are literally the same as the Holocaust. But there are plenty of people who continue to act as if critics of the camps are explicitly saying they’re as bad as Nazi death camps and that sentiment is constantly bleeding into the discussion on Wikipedia.
Another Wikipedia editor said on July 16 that “AOC and other far-left activists in congress” have denigrated what the editor calls a “child protection policy” being run by the U.S. government. “[T]his has been parroted by the mainstream media and recently led to the death of an ice officer attacked by an Antifa terrorist.”
It’s unclear what ICE officer death this person may be referring to, though an anti-fascist activist did set fire to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicle in the state of Washington last month. That activist, 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, was shot and killed by police but he didn’t hurt any of the ICE officers. But even Van Spronsen, who said he was taking action against the “forces of evil,” didn’t say that the concentration camps were literally as bad as the Nazi’s camps.
Migrants aren’t being executed at the U.S.-Mexico border, but that doesn’t mean that other things aren’t killing people in U.S. detention. Disease and malnutrition can also kill, as we’ve seen far too many times throughout history. An American teenager was recently picked up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on American soil and lost 26 pounds from malnutrition while in custody for almost a month. The 18-year-old, who says he was forced to sleep on the ground, was accused of lying that he was a U.S. citizen and denied access to a lawyer. Amazingly, Border Patrol said that the teen never told them he was an American, something that was contradicted by paperwork obtained by the Dallas Morning News.
“Current US border policies are not recreating Auschwitz, but they are echoing early concentration camp history, particularly the earliest colonial camps from the turn of the 20th century,” Pitzer told Gizmodo. “Those camps held mostly women and children and didn’t have gas chambers or carry out mass executions. Instead people died from diseases of overcrowding, hunger, and neglect.”
“But it would be a mistake to think these camps weren’t deadly,” Pitzer continued. “Tens of thousands of children died in British concentration camps in southern Africa, and some 150,000 civilians died in camps under Spanish rule in Cuba.”
Other commenters on Wikipedia ask why people didn’t call them concentration camps during the Obama administration, a thought-provoking question if you ignore that President Trump has escalated both the racist rhetoric and inhumane conditions at the border.
“The current border detention system wasn’t built overnight, and many prior administrations bear some responsibility for where the U.S. is at today,” Pitzer told Gizmodo. “But under the current administration, we’ve seen the public targeting of a minority population at the highest levels of government with language used by previous concentration camp regimes, while that population is, in fact, held in dangerous, inhumane civilian camps.”
Pitzer points to the Trump regime’s cruel policy of family separation as evidence that much of what we’re currently seeing is part of a deliberate process to harm people.
“Policies have been adopted to deliberately make conditions on the ground as punishing as possible, placing mass detention and deportations at the heart of the asylum-seeking process and taking children from parents,” Pitzer said.
Pitzer also notes that the continued use of U.S. troops at the border is alarming, along with the fact that American citizens are now being swept up into the camps.
“The recent use of the US military in border camps and the prolonged detention of several US citizens in them further underline that the country is driving this system deeper and deeper into extrajudicial territory and repeating several key elements in concentration camp history,” Pitzer said.
Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites on the planet and helps define reality, whether we like it or not. And the controversy over what to call America’s concentration camps will probably continue well into the future. But there’s one thing we can say for certain: Textbooks of tomorrow will include this shameful chapter in American history. And people of the future probably won’t have to be shy about calling them concentration camps.