Letter to the editor: Are detention centers ‘concentration camps’?
I regret that Sarah Laroche, who wrote a letter decrying the use of the term “concentration camp” in a recent article to describe the detention camps for would-be immigrants now in existence all over this country, won’t be reading this letter (having said that she’ll never purchase another copy of the Addison Independent), as perhaps the information would be helpful or at least clarifying.
The term “concentration camp” is indeed a horrific one conjuring horrific images and memories. And it should not ever be used lightly to label a phenomenon not usually historically associated with it. However, it is important to say what has been commonly known by some for a long time (and is now carefully, even relentlessly documented in a book entitled “Hitler’s American Model” by James Q. Whitman), that Hitler and the Nazi higher up in Germany not only got their inspiration to create concentration camps from this country’s history but actually sent people over here in the early 1930s to research and learn more about them: to study how we took care most brilliantly to lock up Native Americans (not even “immigrants”) in what we eventually labeled reservations but which had the same brutalizing, rapine, dehumanizing intention as concentration camps: to slowly, but not by direct murder (for the most part) cause an entire race to disappear.
(Concentration camps in Nazi Germany, by the way, should not be confused with the “death camps” like Auschwitz, whose sole immediate and absolute purpose was killing. Though many surely died and were tortured and brutalized in concentration camps, these places were, superficially — i.e. for public consumption as well as in reality — brutal work camps, helping to support and supply the Nazi machine.
The Nazi hierarchy sent representatives here to study not only the effectiveness of our slave policies but also the equal “success” of our anti-miscegenation laws, our eugenics research, and our racist immigration policies — since they quite correctly saw that America had been the global leader in creating racist immigration policy from the beginning — i.e. it was never as simple or as real as “give me your tired, your poor.” They eagerly learned much from the Jim Crow laws enacted not too many years after the Civil War ended, which effectively and efficiently continued much of slavery’s utter decimation, subjugation and negation of a supposedly now “free” people… without explicitly euthanizing them.
Our late 19th and early 20th century citizenship and anti-miscegenation laws (the complete segregation by law of blacks and whites, prohibition from marrying, co-habiting, intermingling socially, sharing the same schools, water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants even hospitals) especially directly influenced two principle Nuremberg Laws (the centerpiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi regime). Most stunningly, with terrible irony, if the Nazis sometimes rejected American precedent it was because it was found not to be too enlightened, but too harsh!
Our history of racism and isolation of whoever we hate most at the moment is as American as apple pie. (Let us not forget that it was Americans of Japanese descent we interred during World War II but, quite strangely, not Americans of German descent. My father suffered not at all because his ancestral homeland had become fascist and was at war with us. And it wasn’t because, at least among his own circle, he was known to be virulently anti-fascist, since there were surely many if not all Japanese Americans who were equally and as virulently anti-fascist. It was because he had what is labeled — however scientifically incorrect — as “white” and, even more perfect, he was both blond and blue-eyed.)
So, that the worst of our current detention centers, where people are indeed dying, being tortured by being crowded into cells designed for a third that number, terrified kids are held in isolation, women giving birth are “medically helped” while their arms and legs are shackled and numerous officials stand around observing the emergence of yet another potentially lethal immigrant, are “better” than Nazi concentration camps is not clear. Even if, as Sarah Laroche wrote, the folks so imprisoned receive three meals a day, free medical treatment and are allowed showers, all of which, given all the increasing evidence, is very, very difficult to believe. The parallel seems reasonable. Rather than insulting those who were in a Nazi concentration camp by using this term in relation to our detention centers, it seems to me that it gives horrible honor to both. And it is difficult to imagine that, for many, the trauma of a detention center will not be as great and long-lived for those who survive and are released than it was for those who survived the camps in the 1940s.
It is said that a democracy can only exist and survive if it has an educated citizenship. We, all of us, appear now to be called to help ourselves to an education about these topics since most of our public school education (and most of our college education for those of us who went to college) did and frequently still does nothing to truly educate us about our own history, let alone the history of the rest of the world.
At present, it’s easy to educate one’s self on all manner of these important topics through books. To begin to learn about slavery of Indians and Africans in 17th century Puritan New England try reading “New England Bound” by Wendy Warren. To learn something of the history of our immigration laws try “The Guarded Gate” by Daniel Ockrent. To learn a very great deal that is newly and deeply researched about the history of colonial New England in terms of the native tribes there, try the beautifully written “Our Beloved Kin” by Lisa Brooks. For an easy-to read history of the early first ladies and their personal slaves, try “Ties That Bound” by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. To learn more than you wish you had to but should be willing to learn about how Jim Crow is now embedded in our national legal and penal systems and supported by Supreme Court decisions consider reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Many such books are also on tape. (Remarkably, other than this last one, all these books have were released during the approach and arrival of our current administration in Washington. So there may be something to thank it for. A wake-up call.)
A painfully easy way to begin to learn one small disturbing historical reality is to look up this video (and others) on YouTube. It’s about Nazi rallies that took place in Madison Square Garden — and one particularly in 1939. My father had always told me about these rallies because, as a young German immigrant to this country he was disgusted by them and used to hang out outside the Garden trying to confront the people entering and leaving. (“Confrontation” frequently leading to fist fights.) There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that my father once snuck in to one of those foul gatherings and released a carton load of white rats into the midst of the proceedings. But perhaps that tale is merely an old man’s bravado wish that, as a passionate young man, he had indeed done something so ultimately irrelevant, but non-violent and deeply satisfying to the grieving soul.
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