Friday Takeaway: Concentration camps?

For Hampshire Life
Published: 7/18/2019 4:47:58 PM
Modified: 7/18/2019 4:47:47 PM

Should the temporary immigration detention facilities (TIDF) where the Trump administration is housing asylum-seeking children and others be described as “concentration camps”?

Right after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the outspoken congresswoman (D-NY), used the term during her visit to the Clint migrant facility, in El Paso County, Texas, social media went berserk. Those opposing her use of language argued in favor of protecting a specific lexicon to describe the tragedy of Jews and other victims at the hands of the Nazis.

I disagree. For starters, even within the Second World War, the term Konzentrationslager was rather malleable. Starting in 1933, after Adolf Hitler became chancellor, camps were used for housing Jews and other Nazi victims until the end of the war. What happened in each of those facilities differed from case to case. Some camps like Auschwitz, in occupied Poland, were used to exterminate people. Fittingly, they, in specific ways, have come to be known as “death camps.” Others such as Theresienstadt, in the former Czechoslovakia, functioned at times like retirement settlements. The intention was to lie to the world by making the campus look as if it was hospitable, even welcoming. Lots of “cultured” people were imprisoned in Theresienstadt. For instance, Hans Krása’s children’s opera “Brundibár” (1938) was first performed there in 1943.

The TIDFs isolate people — that is, they “concentrate” them, supposedly only for a few days, maybe a week or two — because of their skin color (no such treatment has ever been applied to white immigrants) as well as precarious economic condition and political status (most come from Central America, where gang life and corruption run rampant and there is little prospect for a better life).

The conditions at the TIDFs are extreme. Children without parents, some barely a year old, cry for their loved ones without end. Medical support is limited. Toilets are in disrepair. Diapers are unavailable. Against common sense, Sarah Fabian and other Justice Department immigration lawyers have argued that soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste aren’t needed.

In messages leaked to the press, TIDF staff were caught using derogatory language to describe those in detention. They have also used abusive, misogynistic words to describe Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress visiting these sites.

Is this the United States, I ask? That such events are taking place on our soil is shameful. Yes, I’m an angry Mexican immigrant. I chose this country because of its embrace of freedom, equality, and pursuit of happiness as a public state, not an elitist one.

Of course, the TIDFs aren’t extermination camps. Still, they are inhumane, bestial concentration camps. In World War Two, Americans helped liberate Europe. Are we now the ones in need of liberation?

The Holocaust (Shoah, in Hebrew) is indeed unique in history. I am a descendant of Polish and Ukrainian Jews massacred by the Germans between 1939 and 1945. I know first-hand what such tragedy entails. On my paternal line, nine of my grandmother‘s eleven siblings perished in the war.

But other systematic denigrations of people are equally unique, for uniqueness — “the quality of being the only one of its kind,” according to Merriam-Webster — is a relative term. Aren’t we all unique? And aren’t we all alike, too?

I see no fault in protecting certain lexical tools to refer to the Holocaust. If the entire world is once again numb to the atrocities committed by one government against a defenseless population, doing so in the name of self-protection (Trump’s appallingly essentialist views favor one ethnic group, deemed more pure, against others), whatever strategies might be useful to stop such egregious acts, including the use of a particularized language, must be employed.

In an interview, Donald Trump suggested that compared to where the asylum-seekers come from, the living circumstances in the TIDFs are an improvement. The thought itself is macabre. Is purgatory better than hell?

Like the universe, language exists in constant change. To loftily protect it from getting tarnished by contemporary affairs is ridiculous. Children and others are dying in the TIDF camps. By focusing on a linguistic debate rather than looking for ways to halt the tragedy, we are all guilty.

In and of itself, the suffering of one child represents the suffering of all humankind.

In “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), James Baldwin says that the American ideal, after all, is that everyone individually should be as much alike as possible. Are those in TIDFs not Americans? They were born in that large, generous expanse known as the American continent. And they are petitioning to be citizens like the rest of us, the way some 40 million Americans today who were born elsewhere, a few of them in concentration camps, petitioned not long ago.

What is frightening about the debate on how to refer to TIDF camps is that it makes the nation resemble the very anti-models it fought against a generation ago.

In response to yet another allegation of sexual assault against him, Trump rhetorically described the accuser as “not my type.” Clearly, the violence to language starts with him. How long will it take the majority of Americans to realize he isn’t our type either?

Trump is the very definition of ignominy: disgraceful, dishonorable. That he is the U.S. president is proof that no nation is exceptional.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and  the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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