Concentration Camps: an America First Phenomenon

Rep. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (D-NY) reference to “concentration camps” at the border led to a social and broadcast media frenzy. Denials that they are actually concentration camps, because they are not as bad as those which killed six million Jews, neglect crucial facts. Most significantly, they neglect that the Nazi concentration camps were an extreme.

America had concentration camps before most other modern nations. We just called them “Indian Reservations” back then. Actually letting Native Americans stay on the reservation land was never a real consideration. The idea was to first concentrate the population, and then to forcibly relocate that population to someplace out of reach of their traditional lands. That is where the Cherokee’s infamous “Trail of Tears” came from

Image of historic leaflet selling Indian land

Lands reserved by treaty for America’s First Nations were sold to settlers or provided in land grants after tribes were relocated.


Puget Sound learned this the hard way in the 1850’s. Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens wrote that he intended to follow the practices of former treaty negotiations while securing treaties in Washington Territory. Then the pattern was concentration and relocation. But local Indians heard of past events back east. Five tribal leaders claimed that is why their marks must have been forged on the Medicine Creek Treaty; they would never accept the terms, and believed they would be relocated north of the Sound, with traditional enemies between them and home.

This precipitated the Puget Sound Indian War, which brought its own concentration camp on Fox Island. Any natives in the Sound who were not legitimately working for settlers and did not go to Fox Island were considered combatants. In Tears of Internment, the late Nisqually Tribal Historian Cecelia Svinth Carpenter recounts conditions so appalling that Gov. Stevens’ visit brought his decision to end the war and concede to more liberal treaty terms.

America’s precedent became other colonial powers’ license. During the Italian occupation of Libya between World War I and World War II, General Andrea Graziani created massive concentration camps. Native Libyans eventually starved and died in those.

But America was not done yet. Our internment camps for Japanese Americans were less decrepit than Fox Island, or those in Libya, lacked the homicidal intent of those contemporaneous camps emerging in Germany. They were no less unconscionable infringements on the lives and liberties of those subjected to them. Our own reparations decades later never came close to the costs on the families sent there.

As internment camp survivor George Takei has said, at least he was not separated from his parents. In our current concentration camps at (or near) America’s border we exceeded that limitation already. Can we hear the proposal to concentrate migrants in Fort Sill’s former internment facility as anything but an ominous echo of past error seeking an invitation now?

In this 1942 photo provided by the War Relocation Authority, Japanese American detainees are seen in a mess hall at the Fresno Assembly Center in Fresno, Calif. Before being shipped to permanent internment camps, most Japanese were rounded up and detained for months in temporary “assembly centers” such as this one, in often primitive conditions and under the watch of armed guards. (AP photo/War Relocation Authority)

So when a holocaust survivor (or  younger rabbi) says that these are not concentration camps, with all respect, that merely says they do not meet the horrific extremes the world allowed Nazi depravity to reach. We are still concentrating populations. We are cultivating unhealthy conditions, with insufficient resources for those detained. Just because our concentration camps are only as bad as Nazi camps were at the beginning, instead of at the end, makes them no less concentration camps. We have seen where this ends, and acting like this is not the same path takes obtuse ignorance and self-righteous denial.

And for those who cite Godwin’s Law-that extended online discussions will eventually make a Nazi comparison-that rule does not apply. This merely compares our actions to our own bad choices in the past. Right now, it does not look like we have learned much, so we have every reason to believe it will continue getting worse until we stop playing semantic games over this atrocity.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Zosa #

    You’ll have to follow in the footsteps of your father and liberate them.

    Speaking of which, you haven’t said too much about Buchenwald in a while. You used to write about that like fifty times a day. Under a court order or something?

  2. theaveeditor #

    You mean the effort by my brother Hugh Schwartz, abetted by Hugh’s wife a shyster to destroy these images? And his illegal use of the estate’s money to do that??? Hmmm

  3. Lord Voldemort #

    What does Harry Potter have to do with it?

Your Comment