Fort Sill, a sprawling U.S. Army base in the flatlands 85 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, has a pleasant-looking stone entrance, framing a piece of heavy artillery. That just hints at its violent story — launched with a generation of bloody military campaigns against Native Americans that only ended with the imprisonment of the legendary Apache chief Geronimo, who’s buried at the fort.
Fort Sill’s history as an outpost of an American gulag is briefer but no less brutal.
In early 1942, the U.S. Justice Department transferred to the Oklahoma base some 700 people of Japanese descent — in this case, still holding Japanese citizenship and accused of spying based on non-existent or specious evidence — rounded up after Pearl Harbor and imprisoned without charges. It was one small slice of a shameful episode in American history — the internment of at least 110,000 people, eventually comprised mostly of Japanese-Americans U.S. citizens -- by President Franklin Roosevelt at the dawn of World War II.
Upon their arrival, the prisoners were greeted that April by harsh prairie winds that forced them to stay up all night to keep their tents from collapsing. When summer finally came, daytime temperatures soared over 100 degrees, with no shade to protect the internees. Yet the camp’s guards — who watched over everything from tall towers with machine guns — refused to let their prisoners rest during these boiling days.
It was enough to drive a man insane — and then one man finally was. His name was Kanesaburo Oshima. The 58-year-old’s alleged “crime” was volunteering to translate documents for Japan’s consular office on the big island of Hawaii, helping out his fellow Japanese natives who’d joined him in emigrating to the then-U.S. territory. Five months in, Oshima’s worries about his 11 children and the fate of the small shop he ran back in Hawaii ate at his soul.
On May 12, 1942, Oshima couldn’t take it anymore. He walked up to the first of two wire fences surrounding the encampment and started climbing over. A U.S. guard chased him with a pistol and fired several shots that missed, as other internees screamed, “Don’t shoot! He’s insane!” Oshima made it to the second fence and climbed to the top but then stopped — long enough for another chasing guard to shoot him in the back of the head. Kanesaburo Oshima died instantly — one of at least seven Japanese-Americans shot and killed by guards during the World War II internment.
Those heartbreaking gunshots are echoing 77 years later. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that Fort Sill will again become a camp for people born on foreign soil and detained by the U.S. government — some 1,400 migrant children from Central America rounded up during the ongoing crackdown at America’s southern border. We seem determined as a nation to preach “Never Again” to our schoolkids — while doing the same things again and again.
Yes, there are caveats. So let’s deal with them. It’s very important to note that the Fort Sill was used for similar purposes during Barack Obama’s presidency, for about four months, at the height of a flood of southern border crossings in 2014. I wrote last year that the Obama-era treatment of these kids — some of whom slept in cages — was a disgrace and that I was ashamed and that others should be too that we didn’t pay closer attention and condemn this when it happened.
But, not to sound trite, two wrongs don’t make a right, and for the most part Obama eventually tried to mitigate the 2014 crisis (and unauthorized border crossings did drop.) Trump’s efforts since 2015 — to successfully win the presidency on a xenophobic “Build the wall!” campaign, backed up by a police-state-toward-migrants governing upon taking office — shows a constant striving to make things worse. His policies aim to prove true 2018′s incredibly incisive piece by the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer — that “the cruelty is the point” — and are central to his 2020 re-election scheme.
Somehow, we’re supposed to be reassured that Fort Sill’s camp for kids will be run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not by machine-gun toting Army sentries. That’s one small step for humankind, I guess — but the lived experience of 29 months of Trump’s presidency and his abusive immigration policies suggests that the United States has in fact learned next to nothing since the human-rights debacle of the Japanese-American internment.
The U.S. Border Patrol, the first stop for many of these detained youths on their journey to Fort Sill, has — with not nearly enough fanfare — resumed keeping some of its overflow of apprehended border-crossers in what’s been called “a human dog pound” underneath the international bridge in El Paso. Earlier this month, New Mexico State University professor Neal Rosendorf went back to the site that Border Patrol had supposedly abandoned this spring and was shocked to instead find about 100-150 detained men who’d been there for days, desperately seeking shelter from the unrelenting south Texas sun.
"They told me they’ve been incarcerated outside for a month, that they haven’t washed or been able to change the clothes they were detained in the entire time, and that they’re being poorly fed and treated in general,” Rosendorf told Texas Monthly.
If the El Paso situation were an outlier, that would be bad enough. But increasingly the cruelty — the whole point, remember? — is baked into the system. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently exposed a modern gulag of U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) isolation-cell treatment for thousands of detainees “to punish immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing and to segregate hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees and people with disabilities.” And as you may have heard, at least seven migrant children have died in U.S. custody since Trump took office — a stat that almost weirdly mirrors the Japanese-Americans killed in this nation’s custody during World War II.
Earlier this month, the HHS office that will be detaining children at Fort Sill and other sites — the Office of Refugee Resettlement (which seems very bad at doing its one job) — announced that because it was running out of money keeping so many kids in cages or what not, it’s halting classes and legal aid, even soccer games, for these youths. Again, humans in giant tent cities in harsh climates with literally nothing to do all day sounds painfully like the Japanese-American internment.
Or...a concentration camp.
As the number of U.S. immigration detainees rises in tandem with these reports of horrific abuses, there’s been a growing debate over whether it’s right to refer to the islands of the growing gulag archipelago across America — the nation of “it can’t happen here” — as “concentration camps.” But to experts who know the most about the subject, that question is already settled.
I communicated this week with Andrea Pitzer, a veteran journalist who authored 2017′s definitive work, One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. She told me that Americans have come to associate the term “concentration camp” with its most lethal form — the Nazi death camps, or extermination camps, such as Auschwitz — but the history of detention centers meant to isolate and dehumanize various populations is both more extensive and more complex.
“What we’re doing is dangerous," Pitzer said of Trump administration treatment of migrants. "This kind of mass civilian detention without trial always leads to predictable bad outcomes, from permanent harm to children to illness or death. Each camp system also brings new and unexpected misfortunes into the world that no one planned on. The latter often turns out to be their most dangerous aspect. And once opened, camp systems are very hard to close.”
The journalist Jonathan M. Katz made a similar argument in the Los Angeles Times and on his own website, that it’s time to acknowledge that America is running concentration camps and to treat this with the moral urgency that deserves. He quoted the renowned “banality of evil” Holocaust chronicler and survivor Hannah Arendt, who said even non-lethal concentration camps are a problem for humanity because “the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead…”
Yes, the “human dog pound" of El Paso, the looming detention center at Fort Sill, and these other facilities are indeed American concentration camps, and we have an obligation as human beings to try to stop this by any means necessary. Whether it’s by massive public protest or by a miraculous growth of congressional backbone, we urgently need to force new policies that will speed the flow of children to sponsors or into asylum hearings, and ensure that any detentions are brief and, most importantly, humane. Big picture, it means doing things like restoring smartly targeted aid to Central American nations that will stop desperate people from making a dangerous trek in the first place.