When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that immigrant detention centers were “concentration camps,” the dust-up over that rhetoric reminded me that that we all need to be more careful about using language that equates people or policies to the evil of Nazi Germany. I am guilty of this too, and I need to do better.
Obviously, sometimes references to Nazi Germany are appropriate. I said that Imperial Japan was in many ways just as evil as Nazi Germany, and that is true. It is also true that the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire was not only similar to the genocide committed by Nazis, but actually encouraged Nazis that they could get away with exterminating the Jews. Being more careful about Nazi analogies does not mean we can never compare a specific evil thing to Nazi Germany, especially when there is a direct parallel.
Nonetheless, we are often too quick to bring out the word “Nazi” in frivolous ways, such as “food Nazis” or “anti-smoking Nazis.” Even in something we find horrifying, invoking Nazi Germany is a way that does not apply to the situation immediately distracts from the argument over the issue and becomes a debate over rhetoric and civility. Whatever point we are trying to make is lost in a heated argument over rhetoric.
This brings me to AOC and the “concentration camps” reference. Obviously she was invoking the Holocaust, because she knows exactly what message she is sending when she says “concentration camps.” She knows exactly what she is saying when she couples that with the phrase “never again.” She can backtrack and deny what she said all she wants, but she said what she said. And obviously, she is dead wrong. Detaining people who are illegally entering the country is not the same as rounding up and exterminating people because of their ethnic heritage.
AOC unfortunately damaged her own argument, and it is a discussion that we need to have. We need to have more money appropriated to deal with illegal immigration, and we need to do the best we can to treat the detained migrants in the most humane way possible. While the Trump Administration is doing good things on border security, we need to find a better way to deal with this problem. That policy debate should not be sidetracked by foolish comparisons to the genocide of 6 million Jews.