Robert Knox
Jul 5, 2019 · 9 min read

Imprisoned Women Told by Their Jailers “to drink out of a toilet.” This is What Happens in “Concentration Camps.” Abuse Is What They Are All About

The government calls them facilities. But they’re also concentration camps.

Members of Congress inspected immigrant detention “facilities,” as the government calls them, along America’s Southern border last week. They found overcrowding, under-feeding, people sleeping on concrete floors under mylar blankets, and women told to drink out of the toilet if they were thirsty.

Welcome to the American Gulag.

Yet some Americans, politicians especially, are offended by the use of the term “concentration camp” for the practice of gathering large numbers of migrants into crowded, under-resourced holding pens for indefinite detention. But concentration camps is what they are, and they have been used by this country, and other countries, many times before.

First, let us distinguish between “concentration camps” and “death camps.” The term death camp has been used since the Nazis invented the modern atrocity of industrial-style mass slaughter during World War II. What they did, how they did it, and how many human beings they murdered are justly encompassed by the term “Nazi death camps” and the figure of “the six million,” both accorded a special place in the Memory of Human Evil.

A “concentration camp,” to give it a dictionary definition, is a place where a government or some superior power gathers by force large numbers of a certain class of people such as political prisoners, persecuted minorities, or an undesired population of any other origin, into a confined area without the resources, or the intention, to enable the imprisoned to do anything more than try to stay alive.

“For the shrieking Republicans who don’t know the difference: concentration camps are not the same as death camps,” said Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced the term to her historically under-informed colleagues. “Concentration camps are considered by experts as ‘the mass detention of civilians without trial.’ And that’s exactly what this administration is doing.”

Also, a concentration camp — a massed confinement of displaced or specifically detained people, where the material and psychological suffering is structural — is typically situated out of the sight of a country’s general population.

No surprise, then, at what the most recent Congressional oversight delegation found when members inspected detention centers in El Paso and Clint, Texas. These inspections were organized after lawyers seeking to visit their clients in the Clint lock-up reported multitudes of sick and dirty children trying to cope without their parents, including older children trying to care for wailing toddlers.

The Congressional inspectors found “deplorable conditions,” even though the government agencies running these facilities knew they were coming. They found people in crowded cells without running water or any way to shower in a Border Patrol camp in El Paso. They found women in their fifties and sixties sleeping in a small concrete cell with no running water, going weeks without showers. All of them separated from their families.

Congresswoman Lori Trahan of Massachusetts reported seeing women “sobbing in a crowded cell because they were separated from their kids… Toddlers quarantined in a 8x10’ room sleeping on the floor with the flu… Young girl in a hot warehouse coloring with a chain link fence around her.”

And the Congressional visitors were greeted by shows of resentment and hostility by the guards.

“This has been horrifying so far,” Ocasio-Cortez reported. “We’re talking systemic cruelty with a dehumanizing culture that treats people like animals.”

Treating people like animals is a good definition of what tends to happen in concentration camps.

Yet somehow the use of the term “concentration camp” for the government’s overcrowded, unprepared detention facilities became a DC and media controversy because ignorant American politicians and commentators, mostly Republicans, did not know what the term means. The need for such places was of course a direct consequence of the Trump administration’s decision to deny migrants the opportunity to apply for refugee status and to criminalize unauthorized attempts to cross the border, changing their legal status from civil to a criminal offenders.

The administration was of course wholly unprepared to deal with the consequences. One suspects that the tiny mind and poisoned heart in the White House assumed that desperate people fleeing murderous conditions in their home countries would simply turn around and return to the lives of fear and despair that had driven them originally to take the long, dangerous journey to the border of a country once universally regarded as a symbol of hope.

When the migrants didn’t magically disappear from the border, the government response was to demean the victims of this inhuman policy, treat them like animals, and dehumanize them in the public mind in order to justify their callous treatment. When you have dehumanized and devalued your victims, you can treat them any way you wish because now they are no longer ‘really’ people.

History shows that is what governments have always done to “inconvenient” and unwanted people. They put them behind fences in “camps.” They keep them out of sight. They ignore the suffering of inevitably inadequate facilities — not enough living space, drinking food, water, bathing water, bathrooms, health care. Then what happens, happens.

When the numbers of people in such place grow large enough, historians term them concentration camps. And when a devalued population has been imprisoned in densely concentrated masses, where their keepers govern their movement, governments sometimes move to ‘solve’ or lessen a problem by exterminating them, or simply by allowing the physical consequences of their deteriorating condition to take their natural course.

American history provides some sad examples.

The little-remembered Spanish American War was sparked by American outrage over Spain’s repression of the Cuban independence movement in the 1890s. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in Spanish concentration camps as the Spanish government resorted to the tactic of isolating rebel fighters from their civilian supporters. The country’s rural population was forcibly relocated into unlivable fortified towns. Famine and disease there caused an estimated 400,000 deaths.

Around the same time Great Britain used the same tactic in the Boer War in South Africa. About 10 percent of the Dutch-descended Boer population died in British camps, along with 20,000 black Africans.

And no sooner had America entered the Cuban conflict to support independence there than it found itself copying Spanish tactics in other parts of the empire, particularly the Philippines, that a new imperial power — the USA — promptly stole from a fading one, Spain.

Beginning in 1899 America began imprisoning large numbers of the native Philippine population in concentration camps — mirroring the Spanish strategy that had outraged Americans in Cuba — when native rebels began waging guerilla warfare against US occupation forces. Large numbers died in these camps; historians place the civilian toll death during the suppression of the rebellion at 200,000. The infamous “hamlet” strategy that destroyed civilian villages during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s followed this disastrous model.

During World War II, American soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese invaders in the Philippines were force- marched in the infamous “Bataan death march” to prison camps, during which an estimated 500 Americans were killed. American civilians living in Philippines were also interned in concentration camps. Families were separated, facilities were inadequate, food was short, and some people died in captivity.

This country, of course, created its own system of “internment” camps — regarded by most historians as concentration camps — for Japanese nationals, and citizens of Japanese extraction, during World War II, housing more than 100,000 people. People were decently housed and fed, though their lives were disrupted, most families lost their property, and their Constitutional rights were conspicuously violated.

Looked at globally, large scale governmental mistreatment of minorities and migrant communities through internment in concentration camps is abhorrently common.

In recent years the government of Dominican Republic began expelling people of Haitian descent, and Haitians were forced to flee violence from vigilantes. Two years ago The New York Times reported, “The threats reminded [Haitian refugees] of their grandparents’ stories of 1937, when Dominican soldiers massacred anyone living along the border they thought looked or sounded like a Haitian. ‘Every time there is a deportation, there is a massacre,” one refugee said.”

Two years ago Myanmar decided to expel a minority population of Muslims known as Rohingya through a series of killings and atrocities described by the UN as “ethnic cleansing.” Some 700,000 people are now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

But are refugee camps really so different from “concentration camps”? When does one become the other?

Israel’s neighbors have been housing generations of Palestinian residents who were driven out of their own country by the state of Israel in 1948. Palestinians living in Lebanon and other countries are minimally housed and adequately fed by the UN, but they have no citizenship, no civil rights, and few if any opportunities to leave the “camps” in which they were born.

And in Europe migrants fleeing poverty and political violence in their countries of birth and seeking sanctuary in European countries have been gathered into “refugee” camps. The result for the great majority, so far, is similar to life in a concentration camp of any other origin: indefinite detainment, with little prospect of a free life with basic rights such as citizenship, the right to work, and governmental protection.

After a year or two has passed, what is the difference between a refugee camp and a slum? A ghetto?

A father and daughter seeking refugee status were recently turned away at the American border. They drowned after they tried to cross the Rio Grande.

So, I hear you asking, what is the relationship between all these despicable concentration camps and the death of devalued human beings on our Southern border — such as the father and his 2-year-old daughter he died trying to protect whose image has recently given an entire country a well-deserved case of guilty conscience?

After all, people trying to cross the border in unsanctioned ways have died by the scores for years, decades. Nobody publishes their pictures. It’s illegal to help them. An American was recently prosecuted for leaving drinking water on a known crossing route.

But in the case of the deaths of these two members of an El Salvadoran, yet archetypal family — always keeping in mind that the precious family image of mother, father and child is at the heart of the largest religion in the world, and the one most of POTUS 45’s backers profess to practice — we know their deaths are directly connected to the immigrate-hate policies of the moral monster in the oval office.

Given that the doors to refugee status have been squeezed shut to allow only the slightest trickle of sanctuary seekers the opportunity to make their claim, refugees can no longer wait south of the border in the expectation that they will have an opportunity to present themselves to American authorities in a reasonable amount of time. They can wait for bloody forever as far as the implementers of the administration’s current policies — denying admission to refugee seekers and criminalizing those cross the border in unauthorized ways — are concerned. They are essentially being told to ‘get the hell out of here and go back to whatever hellhole you came from.’

Government policy, under POTUS 45, is telling refugees that human life is cheap at the border and that the United States is in no longer concerned with what happens to your fleeting, worthless existence if you happen to be born in a country other than ours.

You are told that you are vermin — just as Trump undeniably declared in one of his infamous electronic profanities that Central Americans seeking to enter the country were an “infestation.”

And that your life and the lives of your family members are worthless in the view of the current government’s immigration practices and border control policies.

America’s Southern border is now run as it would be by any incompetent, lawless, morally vacuous dictatorship in the countries smug Americans tend to look down on. What is the difference between us and Myanmar? Us and the DR? Between the US vis-a-vis Central America and China’s persecution of Tibetans and its Muslim Uyghurs?

So what is the outlook for the devalued people penned up in concentration camps by a bigoted and lawless government? As the Haitian man quoted in the Times story about atrocities visited on his people by their neighbors put it: “‘Every time there is a deportation, there is a massacre.”

Because, as history has shown, concentration camps may turn into death camps. All is conveniently arranged. The victims have all been gathered into one place. Their lives have been devalued by their captors. They have no protection; no protectors.

POTUS 45, who models his rhetoric on dictators and his conduct on gang leaders, has (as stated above) already referred to immigrants from Central America as an “infestation.” An infestation, of course, is a word used for non-human pests: roaches, rats, ants, mice, other insects. To deal with an infestation you call an “exterminator.”

Does anybody really doubt that a head of state who revels in hate speech, provides cover for Nazis, and governs by character assassination of both individuals and nationalities would refrain from adding “extermination” to his list of hideous accomplishments…?

If, that is, the act of systematic murder would gain him more votes than it lost?

It’s up to Americans to show him what he can’t get away with. How are we doing so far?

Novelist, journalist, short story writer, poet, history lover, gardener, blogger. Author of “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel of the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case.

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