Zero Tolerance: The History and Language of Detainment

Featured Image: At a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, a young Honduran boy watches a movie while surrounded by metal gates.


By Shannon Sommers


[dropcap]“L[/dropcap]ike a summer camp,” answered Matthew Albence, head of enforcement and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in describing family detainment centers to journalists who would likely never be granted entry. Albence’s response, coupled with the President’s descriptions of violent gang members flooding the border, attempt to reframe national perception of Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, highlighting the morality of both American law and the country itself. But the pictures of young boys sleeping in tin foil bags silently dismantle this narrative, embodying the innocence, vulnerability, and humanity of detained immigrants in a way that words cannot.

When the words of America’s elected officials contradict the pictures we see for ourselves,  where does that leave the role of journalists, whose job it is to grant language to the unspeakable, who give words to the most powerless among us?

Many writers have reached back into history to combat their own powerlessness, often at a loss for how to tell this story without cheapening the emotional trauma captured in the photographs. There is no journalism handbook for how to convince readers to privilege empathy over man-made laws, and history shows that our capacity to see others as subhuman is unrelenting. Still, with every new image of Trump’s detention centers, we ultimately return to twentieth-century Germany as our baseline for depravity, these headline photographs reminding us of childhood history lessons and the images of starving prisoners they instilled.

While Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy is not the first time that he has made journalists consider what modern fascism would look like, it is also not the first time this administration has wrestled with the haunting memory of “concentration camps”—and, more broadly, with their stance on the language of genocide. It was evident when Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff from Phoenix whom Trump pardoned as part of this same immigration policy, boasted about how he “already [has] a concentration camp” in his outdoor jail called Tent City.  It was evident in its absence, when former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer forgot the term altogether, mistakenly calling them “Holocaust centers.” And it remains evident now, amidst Wikipedia edit wars over whether Trump’s detention centers should be categorized as “concentration camps,” former CIA director Michael Hayden responding to family separation by tweeting pictures of Auschwitz, and a nation of people grappling with the extent to which the remnants of this global catastrophe linger in the present.

Adhering to an incomplete history of detention, one that begins and ends with death camps, leads to misguided outrage at journalists’ language, rather than the conditions they describe. (The Holocaust Museum’s own definition of the phrase is not limited to Nazi Germany, but refers to any “camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.”) This outrage also highlights the dangers of reading history backwards, of pretending that people in the earliest stages of fascism’s rise could entirely foresee its eventual devastation, and of perceiving past catastrophes as being so unique that no modern country could ever escalate there again.


(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Separated family members communicate through the U.S.-Mexico border fence.


Policing the language used to denounce immigration detainment centers has not been limited to obscure, far-right corners of the internet, but has inched uncomfortably close to the mainstream. John Podhoretz, a columnist at the New York Post, tweeted, “Stop already with the Nazi and Hitler analogies. Really. Stop.” Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, charged in an interview with Newsmax TV that making references to Nazi Germany is “a horrible analogy because it’s a form of Holocaust denial. If you say that Trump’s like Hitler, what you’re saying is that the Jews of Germany and Jews of Poland didn’t suffer any more than we’re suffering now, and that there were no gas chambers and that there were no death camps.”

Explaining why many seem more appalled at Holocaust comparisons than the reasons they are made requires some understanding of the global history behind detention. It requires knowing that concentration camps did not even begin in Europe, but in nineteenth-century Cuba. In 1896, Spanish General Weyler implemented a military policy of reconcentración to starve, isolate, and eventually annihilate the mambises—Cuban revolutionaries associated with the independence movement, who aimed to defeat colonial reinforcements. After the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in the Havana Harbor in 1898, America joined the war between Spain and Cuba, holding the concentration camps as proof of Europeans’ immorality. Yet, after annexing the Philippines themselves, Americans watched as U.S. military forces transformed into the very thing it so despised, isolating Filipinos in “protected zones” and murdering all those who dissented. In 1902, 8,350 prisoners of approximately 298,000 died within a four month period under American rule, with some camps experiencing up to a 20 percent rate of mortality.

To admit that the term “concentration camp” may be relevant outside of the twentieth century, let alone to acknowledge that it did not even originate in the same geographic region as the Holocaust, is uncomfortable. It combats our assumptions about the singularity of genocide, and of the hatred that fuels it. It forces us to confront the fact that “Never Again” is a political cry, not a declaration of impossibility. If conservatives argue that the lack of gas chambers at the border makes any comparison to Hitler’s Germany null and void, then they don’t have to confront the possibility that this history can repeat itself, and that their inaction will be remembered.

Podhoretz, in an article to clarify his tweet, wrote, “Bad things that happen on earth are not all the same thing. Some are bad. Some are worse.” It is an objectively true statement. But it is also objectively true that every abomination in history involved escalation, a point where awful became cataclysmic. There is a reason why we do not learn about the past in reverse. Both distancing ourselves from the Holocaust and minimizing other atrocities in our cultural memory—including distinctly American tragedies, like the Japanese internment or the Trail of Tears—serve to deny the proximity and possibility of evil, of which Trump’s detention centers are only the most recent example in a long, brutal timeline.

Only recognizing parallels as legitimate when they point out exact repetitions of the past prohibits us from using our knowledge of history to prevent injustice. If we wait until circumstances have reached devastation, we negate the purpose of making comparisons at all. It allows any case of using history to inform politics, no matter how nuanced or substantive, to be dismissed as hysteria. Despite careful study of the connections between Trump’s tweets and Hitler’s rhetoric, there will never be a way to directly compare language’s ability to dehumanize with the material tragedy of genocide, the abstract to a body count.

If we eschew journalists who point out that Hitler’s rise did not start in death camps, Germany’s history feels obscure, more distant than if we acknowledge how it began with a country deeply entrenched in economic insecurity. Dismissing this history’s relevance to politics is not even something that the creator of Godwin’s Law agrees with, at least not anymore. It allows Americans to pretend that modern political leaders are inherently more moral than those of twentieth-century Europe, just as they held false beliefs about themselves before continuing the legacy of Weyler’s concentration camps in the Philippines. Perhaps most troubling, it fails to acknowledge the ideological fanaticism that precedes genocide. It acts as though the nationalist anger rampant through Nazi Germany was irrelevant to the millions of lives lost, as if it is entirely distinct from Trump using MS-13 as a scare tactic to corrode Americans’ belief that the immigrants at our border are still human.

Despite the continually abhorrent headlines, what remains most dangerous about Trump is his consistent unwillingness to learn history, and his disregard for lessons of the past. It is absurd to accuse journalists of contributing to Holocaust erasure when they identify the ramifications of privileging jingoism over humanity, and equally absurd that the President does not know them himself. To lodge attacks against those questioning what we should carry with us from the past not only tramples over the voices of Holocaust survivors, many of whom have spoken extensively about the scars family separation creates, but serves to amplify violence against the very people holding our institutions accountable.

For an administration that has dehumanized and maligned immigrants since the campaign trail, instant ideological change cannot be expected. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed Holocaust references as “a real exaggeration,” instead defending the practice of family separation at the border. But the fact that these parallels were brought to his attention at all shows exactly why comparisons matter. Language shapes our politics. Language may be the one thing that the people in power cannot hide from. Making these comparisons is not denying that gas chambers did exist, but a refusal to let it get that far again.

It was Elie Wiesel who said, “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.” As Americans, it is our responsibility to remember all of it, including the parts that force us to confront the evil we would rather not see.


Shannon Sommers is a first-year in Trumbull College. You can contact her at