What is a concentration camp?

According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum: “Generically defined, a concentration camp is a site for the detention of civilians whom a regime perceives to be a security risk of some sort. What distinguishes it from a prison (in the modern sense) is that incarceration in a concentration camp is independent of any judicial sentence or even indictment, and is not subject to judicial review.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines a concentration camp as “A camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as dangerous or undesirable.”

Do those definitions sound like anything that is happening in the United States right now?

Perhaps you feel the phrase “concentration camp” is too loaded, given its ties in the cultural consciousness to the Holocaust, one of humanity’s most inhumane acts. You’d be in reasonable company: A couple of definitions I looked up explicitly tie the phrase to the crimes committed by the Nazis in World War II. That’s fair enough, I suppose, even though the term has been used in other instances both before and after the Holocaust.

Is it all right if I use the phrase “internment camp” instead? Is anything like that – what Dictionary.com calls “a prison camp for the confinement of enemy aliens, prisoners of war, political prisoners, etc.” – happening in the United States right now?

If your answer is no, how would you describe the detention centers at our southern border?

On a more personal note, would you want any child to be held in those detention centers? How about your own child? I understand the argument (even though I don’t agree with the rationale) that many of the adults in those centers are being held there because they attempted to enter the country illegally – though not all of them, as some were merely seeking asylum – but even if you’re going to make the case for holding so-called “criminals” in squalid conditions without due process, why are kids being kept there as well? If you committed a misdemeanor, do you think it’s fair that your child would be imprisoned?

People from inside the camps have reported no access to bathing for many days and being forced to drink water from toilets. The U.S. Office of Inspector General has referred to the conditions of the camps as “dangerous overcrowding.” Are these acceptable conditions for anyone to be held under, let alone children?

A few related questions: What problem is being solved by these camps? Is the problem more serious than those being created by the camps? Why put people in camps when government programs exist for electronic monitoring and pairing the people who would otherwise be detained with social workers who would make sure they attended court dates? Is the cruelty involved in these camps actually a punitive feature intended by the people who authorized them?

It could be, perhaps, that you feel that the conditions of these camps have been exaggerated. After all, many of the people who have alerted the public to them have done so without photographic evidence – thanks to their phones being taken from them while they visited. 

Is this suspicious behavior? Is it prudent to trust a government institution that tells you that everything is fine while preventing documentation of its practices?

It’s easy nowadays to become distracted – by life, by work, by the endless deluge of happenings flowing from our TVs and computers and newspaper pages. It’s understandable that some information, particularly that which you may not want to think about, gets elided in your brain or filed in a mental cabinet of things you don’t wish to further interrogate. It’s also possible that sometimes, the easiest thing to say about complicated topics that you don’t wish to confront is that they’re fake news. I get it, even though I disagree. It’s a rough world.

With that in mind, I will present one more simple fact and one more question. Since December, seven kids have died in the camps. For those elected officials and individual citizens who still believe the camps are acceptable, I wonder: How many more people would need to die before they’d change their minds?

Ryan Howard is the news editor of The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at ryan.howard@ecm-inc.com.

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