concentration camp (noun): a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.
– Oxford English Dictionary
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has ignited a firestorm of criticism, from both the left and the right as well as the mainstream media, for calling US immigrant detention centers “concentration camps.” To her credit, Ocasio-Cortez has refused to back down, citing academic experts and blasting the Trump administration for forcibly holding undocumented migrants “where they are brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying.” She also cited history. “The US ran concentration camps before, when we rounded up Japanese people during World War II,” she tweeted. “It is such a shameful history that we largely ignore it. These camps occur throughout history.” Indeed they do. What follows is an overview of US civilian concentration camps through the centuries. Prisoner-of-war camps, as horrific as they have been, have been excluded due to their legal status under the Geneva Conventions, and for brevity’s sake.
Trail of Tears
Half a century before President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law in 1830, a young Virginia governor named Thomas Jefferson embraced genocide and ethnic cleansing as solutions to what would later be called the “Indian problem.” In 1780 Jefferson wrote that “if we are to wage a campaign against these Indians, the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River.” However, it wasn’t until Jackson that “emigration depots” were introduced as an integral part of official US Indian removal policy. Tens of thousands of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca, Winnebago and other indigenous peoples were forced from their homes at gunpoint and marched to prison camps in Alabama and Tennessee. Overcrowding and a lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of measles, cholera, whooping cough, dysentery and typhus, while insufficient food and water, along with exposure to the elements, caused tremendous death and suffering.
Thousands of men, women and children died of cold, hunger and illness in camps and during death marches, including the infamous Trail of Tears, of hundreds and sometimes even a thousand miles (1,600 km). This genocidal relocation was pursued, Jackson explained, as the “benevolent policy” of the US government, and because Native Americans “have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits nor the desire of improvement” required to live in peace and freedom. “Established in the midst of a… superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority… they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and long disappear,” the man who Donald Trump has called his favorite president said in his 1833 State of the Union address.
War on Terrorists and Migrants
Although prisoner of war camps are not included in this survey of US concentration camps, the open-ended global war against terrorism started by the George W. Bush administration after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States has seen a blurring of lines between combatant and civilian detention. According to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Bush-era secretary of state Colin Powell, most of the men and boys held at the Guantánamo Bay military prison were innocent but held for political reasons or in an attempt to glean a “mosaic” of intelligence. Innocent civilians were also held in military prisons, some of them secret, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Many detainees were tortured and died in US custody. Some of these men have been held without charge or trial for as many as 17 years, while some deemed too innocent to charge remain imprisoned at GITMO despite being cleared for release for many years.
Now it’s the migrants’ turn. And despite the howling protestations of those who commit or justify the crime of tearing infants and children from their parents’ arms and imprisoning them in freezing cages that Trump officials have euphemistically compared to “summer camp,” there is no doubt that concentration camps are in operation on US soil once again. The Trump administration’s attempt to portray child imprisonment as something much happier instantly recalls World War II propaganda films showing content Japanese-Americans benefiting from life behind barbed wire. Actor George Takei, who was interned with his family for the duration of the war, was anything but content. “I know what concentration camps are,” he tweeted amid the current controversy. “I was inside two of them. In America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.”
Takei noted one big difference between then and now: “At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents,” he wrote, adding that “‘at least during the internment’ are words I thought I’d never utter.”
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