July 09, 2019

Just don't call it normal

I’ve often heard that if you slowly heat the water in which a frog is sitting, it won’t notice anything until it’s too late.

I like frogs, so please don’t try that at home. But I think there is at least a metaphorical truth there. Sometimes we don’t notice how much things change until it’s too late. And we sometimes tend to accept unacceptable things as “the new normal.”

As one of Dostoevsky’s characters observed in “Crime and Punishment,” “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel.”

I think the mere fact that many Americans are debating the meaning of the term “concentration camp” in the context of the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant and refugee children is a sign that things are not cool.

Whatever term one might prefer for these facilities, they should not become the new normal and we shouldn’t get used to it.

The AP recently reported that “A traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding for some 250 infants, children and teens locked up for up to 27 days without adequate food, water and sanitation, according to a legal team that interviewed dozens of children at a Border Patrol station in Texas.”

In the Homestead detention center near Miami, around 3,000 migrant or refugee children, most of whom came to the U.S. fleeing violence and poverty and hoping to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum, have been separated from their families. They live in prison-like conditions, sometimes sleeping in dorms that can hold up to 250 kids. They can’t leave the compound and are closely monitored by guards. A strict no-hugging policy is in effect, even between siblings.

So what do you call places like that?

I understand the outrage some people expressed when they heard the term “concentration camp” applied to current U.S. policy. When most people, myself included, hear those words, the first image that comes to mind are the Nazi death camps where millions of Jews, Soviet citizens and POWs, gays and lesbians, Romani, political enemies and other conquered or “inferior” people were exterminated.

Obviously, it would be wrong to equate conditions in migrant detention facilities, however deplorable, with vast industrialized mass killing facilities.

But concentration camps have a history that predates the Holocaust and, while death camps are a type of concentration camp, not all concentration camps were designed with the explicit purpose of mass murder, even though most have caused mass suffering and deaths were common results.

According to Merriam-Webster, part of the definition of concentration camp includes “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard ... .”

One could well argue that the precursors to modern concentration camps could be found in the ways that indigenous peoples were displaced and crowded together into confined spaces or in the treatment of African slaves. Slave ships in the “Middle Passage” have been referred to as “floating concentration camps.”

In the modern sense of the term, concentration camps first showed up in the Cuban struggle for independence in the late 1800s. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler implemented a “reconcentration policy” which ordered rural residents to report to detention centers within eight days or else face execution. Conditions in the camps were as bad as you’d expect, with scarce food, bad housing and unsanitary conditions. Hunger and disease caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The U.S. intervened in that conflict in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Ironically, however, the U.S. wound up establishing similar camps in the Philippines after acquiring the islands from Spain to keep rebellious and independence-seeking islanders in check. One U.S. Army officer recoiled from the site of one such camp, describing it as “some suburb of hell.”

According to the Smithsonian magazine, during the Boer War in southern Africa in the early days of the 20th century, British soldiers rounded up 200,000 Dutch-descended Boers and Africans into concentration camps (by that name) surrounded by barbed wire. Deaths in the camps far outstripped combat deaths.

By the time of the First World War, concentration camps had become an established practice in many locations. The stage was set for worse things to come.

One of the more shameful events in mid-20th century America was the forced detention of over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were U.S. citizens, in camps in the western US after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

The sordid history of such “suburbs of hell” has been thoroughly explored in the recent book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer. She came up with some interesting characteristics of such places:

“A concentration camp exists wherever a government holds groups of civilians outside the normal legal process — sometimes to segregate people considered foreigner or outsiders, sometimes to punish.”

“If prisons are meant for suspects convicted of crimes after a trial, a concentration camp holds those who, most often, had no real trial at all.”

“Concentration camps house civilians rather than combatants ... . Detainees are typically held because of their racial, cultural, religious or political identity, not because of any prosecutible offense — though some states have remedied this flaw by making legal existence next to impossible.”

Given all that history and controversy, what words should be used to describe places today where large numbers of children who have committed no crime are detained and traumatized in our name?

I think I’m going to keep it simple and stick with unacceptable.