I’ve written about default assumptions before: how for example people in different parts of the English-speaking world have different assumptions about what they’ll get when they order “tea” or a “burger.” In the southern United States, the subcategory of “iced tea” has become the default, while in the northern US it’s “hot tea,” and in England it’s “hot tea with milk.” But even though iced tea is the default “tea” in the South, everyone there will still agree that hot tea is “tea.” In other cases, though, one subcategory can be so salient, so familiar as to crowd out all the other subcategories, essentially taking over the category.
An example of this eclipsing is the category of “concentration camp.” When you read those words, you probably imagined a Nazi death camp like Auschwitz, where my cousin Dora was imprisoned. (Unlike many of her fellow prisoners she survived the ordeal, and died peacefully earlier this year at the age of 101.) Almost every time we hear those words, they have referred to camps where our enemies killed millions of innocent civilians as part of a genocidal project, so that is what we expect.
This expectation is why so many people wrote in when National Public Radio’s Neal Conan referred to the camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in World War II as “concentration camps” in 2012. NPR ombudspeople Edward Schumacher-Matos and Lori Grisham observed that the word dates back to the Boer War. Dan Carlin goes into detail about how widely the word “campos de reconcentración” was used in the Spanish-American war. Last year, Aya Katz compared the use of “concentration camp” to that of “cage,” and earlier this year, reviewed the history of the word.
In general, the “concentration camps” of the Boer War and the Spanish American War, as well as the “camps de regroupement” used by the French in the wars of independence in Algeria and Indochina, were a counter-insurgency tactic, whereby the colonial power controlled the movements of the civilian population in an effort to prevent insurgents from hiding among noncombatants, and to prevent noncombatants from being used as human shields.
As Roger Daniels writes in his great article “Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans” (PDF), the concept of “internment” refers to the process of separating “alien enemies” – nationals of an enemy power – from the general population, and was first practiced with British subjects during the War of 1812. While this was done for citizens of Japan (and other enemy powers) during World War II, Daniels objects to the use of “internment” to describe the incarceration of American citizens on the basis of Japanese ancestry. He notes that President Roosevelt used the term “concentration camp” to describe them, and asks people to use that word instead of “internment.”
In the case of the colonial wars, the camps were used to isolate colonized people from suspected insurgents. In the case of the Japanese-American incarceration, the camps were used to isolate suspected spies from the general population. In neither case were they used to exterminate people, or to commit genocide. They were inhumane, but they were very different from Nazi death camps.
It is not hard to understand why the Nazi death camps have come to eclipse all other kinds of concentration camps. They were so horrific, and have been so widely discussed and taught, that the inhumanity of relocating the populations of entire towns and rounding up people based on ethnicity pales by comparison. It makes complete sense to spend so much more time on them. As a result, if we have ever heard the term “concentration camp” used outside of the context of extermination and genocide it doesn’t stick in our memory.
For most English speakers, “concentration camp” means a Nazi death camp, or one equally horrific. This is why Daniels acknowledges, following Alice Yang Murray, that “it is clearly unrealistic to expect everyone to agree to use the contested term concentration camp.”