Masha Gessen has what I think is a really good article in the New Yorker, The Unimaginable Reality of American Concentration Camps
Like many arguments, the fight over the term “concentration camp” is mostly an argument about something entirely different. It is not about terminology. Almost refreshingly, it is not an argument about facts. This argument is about imagination, and it may be a deeper, more important conversation than it seems…
But the argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here…
The choice between these two positions is at the root of the argument between Ocasio-Cortez and the critics of her concentration-camp comment. It is not an argument about language. Ocasio-Cortez and her opponents agree that the term “concentration camp” refers to something so horrible as to be unimaginable. (For this reason, mounting a defense of Ocasio-Cortez’s position by explaining that not all concentration camps were death camps misses the point.) It is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings—and therefore unimaginable. The latter position is immeasurably more difficult to hold—not so much because it is contentious and politically risky, as attacks on Ocasio-Cortez continue to demonstrate, but because it is cognitively strenuous. It makes one’s brain implode. It will always be a minority position.
This is an insight not just about the U.S., but about people in general – right from the manner in which the rise of modern news coverage caused the people of the U.K. to recoil at the thought of the world’s first concentration camps, to the manner in which acts like torture, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment and the like become things that only others should do, or terms that are off limits (at least as applied to the listener’s own nation) not because they don’t fit but because it’s difficult to grapple with the concept that your own nation is committing a historic wrong.
If we were to look at the “concentration camp” controversy a different way, I think the effect would be more clear. If AOC had accused Trump of opening “death camps”, the criticism would be of her making an absurd and inapposite claim, one that is not supported by the facts. There would be no need to call for the term “death camp” to be barred from use in relation to the camps, because people would see such a claim as being patently over-the-top. It’s because the language hits too close to home that the criticism has shifted to the metaphor.
The real test is whether the nation generates the political will to stop an outrage or injustice, or whether it instead settles on a more comfortable word choice and allows it to continue.