“Concentration camp” rhetoric inflames, polarizes

By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

Sometimes as journalists, we are so desperate to call attention to an important story that we resort to inappropriately inflammatory language. This is the case with a well-meaning but ill-conceived op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Call immigrant detention centers what they really are: concentration camps” (June 9). 

The purpose of Jonathan Katz’s column, to shine light on the darkness that is the Trump administration’s immigration policies and practices, was admirable. There should be, as Katz notes, “mass outrage” at a system that separates children from their parents and “brutally” holds detainees in isolation cells.

Katz is correct that sparking “mass outrage” takes work. The question becomes how to best engage the public on this vital issue. This is where Katz’ approach fails. Instead of engaging a large portion of the public, he further alienates those in the center and on the right with his over-the-top, “concentration camp” hyperbole.

The column’s critical and historical analysis of the types (“levels”) of concentration camps is correct, but misses the point. Although the term “concentration camp” does technically describe Trump’s immigration detention facilities, the smoke created by the term obscures what’s going on inside these facilities. There is a technical distinction between concentration and death camps, but this distinction is pragmatically irrelevant—in the public’s view, they are one in the same. Regardless of which type of concentration camp is being discussed, the vast majority of readers will reflexively equate “concentration camp” with ghastly images of Nazi death camps.

To take Katz’ comparison to its logical conclusion, if immigrant detention centers are modern day Nazi death camps, then the Republicans who support these centers must be Nazis, and their leader a 21st century Adolph Hitler.        

Katz writes that calling immigrant detention centers “concentration camps” will increase the likelihood that this issue will get the attention it deserves. Yet, as is usually the case with hyperbole, even if it’s well-meaning, the opposite is true. Overblown rhetoric like “concentration camp” serves only to polarize and to inflame passions on both sides. Using “concentration camp” will add gasoline to liberals’ anti-Trump flames; will force conservatives to rally around Trump, who may have his faults but is not Hitler; and will force those in the shrinking political center to choose a side. 

As for much-needed consensus and compromise on immigration, language like this makes it all but impossible. How can liberals compromise with Nazis? And how can conservatives compromise with those who think they are Nazis?

Katz is correct when he writes, “With constant, unrelenting attention, it is possible we might alleviate the plight of the people inside (immigrant detention centers), and stop the crisis from getting worse.” Stopping the crisis and reaching a compromise on immigration is certainly desirable, but won’t happen if inflammatory terms like “concentration camp” are allowed to leak into the vernacular. Let’s stick with “immigrant detention centers” and follow Katz’ advice to give this story the “unrelenting attention” it deserves.

Steven Youngblood is Director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville, MO, where he is an associate professor. He is author of “Peace Journalism Principles and Practices,” editor of the “Peace Journalist” magazine, and two-time J. William Fulbright Scholar.

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