Think for Yourself: Concentration Camps

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Think Concentration

UNITED STATES presidential hopeful Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) has ignited a firestorm by comparing the migrant detention facilities on the Southern border to concentration camps. Critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look at the history of these insidious institutions and asks whether AOC might be A-OK?

WITH around 24 potential Democratic candidates in the running for the 2020 election, 29-year-old Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is still six years too young to take on Donald Trump, but this hasn’t stopped her making a big noise about some important issues. Highly engaged with the social media generation, AOC made history as the youngest woman sworn into the U.S. Congress, and had her own Footloose moment when some old white men tried to shame her for dancing. 

Earlier this week, AOC said that migrants and refugees (or illegal immigrants, depending on your perspective) being held at the U.S./Mexico border were being held in “concentration camps”. Conservative commentators were quick to condemn her statement and the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel suggested that AOC needed a history lesson:

AOC doubled down, tweeting on Wednesday: 


So who’s right?

Is invoking concentration camps inherently anti-Semitic, or is the description apt?

Defining the Term

From Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Concentration camp: internment centre for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order. Persons are placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial. Concentration camps are to be distinguished from prisons interning persons lawfully convicted of civil crimes and from prisoner-of-war camps in which captured military personnel are held under the laws of war.

From Collins Dictionary: 

'A concentration camp is a prison in which large numbers of ordinary people are kept in very bad conditions, usually during a war.'

From Merriam-Webster:

'A place where large number of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained under armed guard – used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners.'


Looking Back

From a historical perspective, the first concentration camps appeared in Cuba in the late 1800s, established by the Spanish to quell colonial rebellion.

From the Smithsonian:

'Civilians were forced, on penalty of death, to move into these encampments, and within a year the island held tens of thousands of dead or dying reconcentrados, who were lionised as martyrs in U.S. newspapers. No mass executions were necessary; horrific living conditions and lack of food eventually took the lives of some 150,000 people.'

Ironically, the strongest reaction to news of concentration camps in Cuba came from citizens of the United States, who raised money and shipped thousands of pounds of corn, potatoes, peas, rice, beans and condensed milk to detainees. When the U.S. took possession of several Spanish colonies (including the Philippines) in 1901, the concentration camps remained open, despite being described by one Army officer as “like some suburb of hell”.

Naturally, it didn’t take masters of colonialism, the British, to get in on the act. Concentration camps were used in the South African War of 1899-1902 (also known as the Boer War), where the British detained non-combatants from the republics of Transvaal and Cape Colony. Some readers may be familiar with the Boer War from the movie Breaker Morant, the story of Lieutenant Harry Harbord Morant, the first officer executed for murdering Boer P.O.W.'s and civilians of the Northern Transvaal.

World War I

Concentration camps were used sporadically around the world for the next decade or so, but grew in popularity in the First World War, when Britain (again) started interning 30,000 civilians of German, Austrian and Turkish origin in concentration camps on the Isle of Man, and near Wakefield in Yorkshire. These camps were one of the first places that psychologists started to recognise depression as a psychological illness, being described by the Swiss camp inspector Dr Vischer as “barbed-wire disease”.There was a significant incidence of barbed-wire disease amongst inmates, with the prisoners often being psychologically scarred for life by their experiences.

There is no doubt that the Nazi army of WWII took concentration camps to new and horrific levels, but to claim that the experience of concentration camps is unique to a single faith or ethnic group is a misappropriation of history.

Meanwhile, back in 2019…

So, is AOC right

Let’s go back to those definitions from earlier:

Are the detainees’ members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment 

Yes. State security is the primary stated reason for detaining Hispanic migrants, although punishment for thinking they had the right to come to the US seems to be a strong motivator among many ‘wallers’.

Are they placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial 

Yes. Despite the catastrophic state of many central American economies and the high level of political and sectarian violence many refugees are fleeing. All ‘illegal aliens’ attempting to enter from the South are treated equally poorly. This is further evidenced by the comparative ease these same migrants face crossing the border if they’re approaching from the Great White North

Wait, couldn’t we call these prisoner of war camps?

No. The United States is not currently at war with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua. Treating ordinary citizens and refugees as if they were enemy combatants is morally repugnant and a clear violation of the Geneva convention – if only the Geneva convention was applicable outside times of armed conflict

Are there a large number of ordinary people kept in very bad conditions?

You bet your ass. With at least half a dozen dead children, reports of horrific violence against transgender migrants, unaccompanied minors being locked in cages and 900 asylum seekers being crammed into a facility built for 125, calling conditions ‘very bad’ would be a generous assessment. 


In Summary

Based on the historical definition of the term, the United States is currently operating an undefined number of concentration camps on the U.S./Mexico border. This does not equate to calling President Trump a Nazi, nor does it undercut the tragedy of the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were murdered.

Like it or not, U.S. President Donald Trump is overseeing a period in history that will be remembered as a time of intolerance, a time of xenophobia and racism, where people who are the most vulnerable are actively oppressed by what used to be considered the best country in the world. 

Think for yourself.

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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