Genocide and a Subtle Linguistic Distinction

Readers may have heard vaguely on the news about the civilians ‘trapped’ in the last remaining strip of LTTE-held Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, in between shelling them, has called for them to leave/be released by the LTTE, who are supposedly holding them hostage. That, supposedly, is why so many of them remain there.

Or it might have something to do with what happens when they leave: they are put in internment camps. And in such camps children get crushed to death in stampedes for food. There have been a few deaths reported, and since the government so helpfully bars journalists from entering the area, we can only assume there have been others that were not reported, as well as greater numbers of assaults, rapes, etc.

These camps are mentioned in the article in the following terms: “controversial camps, which the Government says are necessary to root out the rebels, but some Tamil activists and MPs have likened to concentration camps.”

Now this enflames both my burning hatred of injustice and my concern with precise understanding of words. These camps are not like concentration camps, they are concentration camps, in the original meaning of that phrase.

Like the British used in Kenya or South Africa, or like the US did to the japanese in WWII, the point of a concentration camp is to concentrate a civilian population in an area where they can be controlled and surveilled (and, typically, abused and emiserated). The point of this is to separate them from an enemy force (real or imagined) which operates within the civilian population and draws support from it.

As I understand it, the camps involved in the Holocaust were not in fact concentration camps: they were extermination camps. The Nazis called them concentration camps to conceal the fullness of their purpose, suggesting that they were simply to control and monitor people.

But as a result of the association now forged between the phrase as the Holocaust, it has come to be understood as ‘extermination camp’. The result is that now some further euphemism is used, like internment camp. The whole process bears a certain resemblance to the ‘cycling’ of genital euphemisms: a word which originally is merely an innuendo, through its strong association with the organ in question, comes to be a ‘graphic’ word and must be replaced by another innuendo.

Extermination camps are rare. Internment camps, and internment more generally, are more common, precisely because they are justified in the terms that states generally accept: restrictions on freedom in order to ensure ‘security’. They are no less a weapon used by governments against civilian populations.

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