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Sessions: Detention centers not like Nazi Germany

In an interview on Fox News, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed comparisons of the detention facilities for migrant children to Nazi concentration camps, arguing Nazis "were keeping the Jews from leaving the country."

Posted: Jun 19, 2018 9:41 PM
Updated: Jun 19, 2018 9:41 PM

Comparing anything to Nazism is usually a losing tactic. The Holocaust was so wholly, systematically, profoundly evil that even the suggestion that something is Nazi-like is easily met with scorn. It can be a challenge, then, to strike the right balance between calling things what they are and keeping the rhetoric even-keeled enough to be taken seriously.

This impulse -- to use our words carefully -- is one more thing being cravenly manipulated by the Trump administration and its right-wing media allies, who seem to take the position that if something is not literally the Holocaust, it's not all that bad. It doesn't matter if you point out that the various steps that led up to the Holocaust -- the campaigns of terror and hate-mongering leveled at minority groups, the civilian detentions, the scapegoating of Jews for economic troubles and a changing culture -- were abhorrent in and of themselves and paved the way for increasingly worse abuses and atrocities.

Words, to this administration, are divorced from any real meaning, except when they're being used as not-so-subtle dog whistles to a racist base. Like so many authoritarian regimes before them, they insist that words can be easily redefined, that history must be erased, and that you can't believe your own lyin' eyes.

Take Jeff Sessions, the architect of the policy of separating children from their parents at the border, who appeared on Laura Ingraham's FOX News show Monday night (Ingraham, for her part, compared the holding facilities, where children are kept inside chain-link cages and warm themselves with foil emergency blankets, to "summer camp"). After former CIA Director Michael Hayden invoked a Nazi concentration camp on Twitter to criticize the separation of families at the border, Sessions claimed that calling the holding facilities "concentration camps" was "a real exaggeration" because Nazis "were keeping Jews from leaving the country."

This is, of course, not true; the Nazis expelled a great many Jews from Germany, and also intentionally split up families in an effort to get more to leave. It is also the case that the term "concentration camp" took on particular salience after the Holocaust, but it has long been used to refer to extrajudicial detentions based on some identity factor, whether that's ethnicity, political opinion, or nationality. And that is exactly what the Trump administration is doing: a President who began his campaign with a scurrilous attack on immigrants from Mexico targets migrants writ large, and is currently concentrating immigrant children in holding facilities because they are migrants (even if ones who had no choice in the matter) -- all in an effort to punish their migrating parents.

No one is claiming the Trump administration is marching kids to death camps. And we must always be careful not to overstate the case. But the case here is clear, and it's dire, and it has dangerous historical precedents that we would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore.

Some of those precedents: Dehumanizing a targeted group of people by comparing them to insects infesting the country and blaming them for ruining a nation's culture, which Trump has done -- the offending group being migrants. Another: Authoritarian states taking cues from each other, as fascist Italy and Nazi Germany did in the World War II era and its lead-up, and as Italy seems to be doing today from the United States; after turning away a rescue boat full of African migrants, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini also announced a registry for Roma people living in Italy, potentially to deport the noncitizens. Roma people were targets of Nazis and fascist Italians alike, and as such, it has long been illegal in Italy to force them to register.

None of this means we are actually living in Nazi Germany. It does mean that our President is embracing policies and rhetoric that are frighteningly akin to those instituted in the early days of the Third Reich, that eventually gave rise to the Holocaust. That is not evidence that America is on the road to a Holocaust of our own (I don't think we are). But it is evidence that these policies are inhumane and shameful. They are so awful that the people who instituted them and carried them out should be ostracized from society for the rest of their lives. And, Nazi comparison or not, that's bad enough.

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