What We Can Learn from Spicer’s Gaffes

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has a difficult job. Turning Donald Trump’s messages into comprehensible, even respectable, public statements is a tough go. But even taking that into account, his performance has been terrible, and on Tuesday, he hit a new low.

Spicer kicked his day off by stating that “Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” Yes, you read that right. Hitler never employed chemical agents to kill helpless civilians.

But gaffes happen. One reporter gave Spicer a chance, asking him to clarify the remark. Spicer thanked her for the opportunity…and proceeded to make the matter even worse. Here’s how he explained himself:

I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad (sic) is doing. I mean, there was clearly, I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. What I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.

Recognizing that his explanation only dug him in deeper, Spicer released a statement saying, “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”

There’s a lot here, beyond the obvious point that Sean Spicer is yet another Trump administration official who is clearly unqualified for his job. Some of it relates to the Trump administration, but some reflects broader issues we really should consider.

  1. The offense for which Spicer was rightly pilloried and eventually apologized was certainly heinous. Whether he just didn’t know that Jews were gassed by Zyklon-B, believes it didn’t happen, or simply forgot because he was only considering the battlefields doesn’t matter.
  2. That said, the invocation of Hitler and the Holocaust to justify action is tired and has become offensive in and of itself. It is usually deployed cynically, to justify a strategic decision (often a very questionable one) by casting it as a defense of innocents. That’s what we said we were doing in Iraq, Vietnam, Grenada, and other places. If military use is strategically warranted, that is a case that should be able to stand on its own. But the firing of missiles and dropping of bombs is rarely done to protect or rescue innocents. When such is necessary, it’s usually an ineffective way to pursue that goal.
  3. Spicer tripped himself up in his first attempt to explain away his horrific statement because he saw (admittedly, without thinking it through) some sort of difference between gassing people in a town and gathering them into a chamber to gas them.

But there is one point that cries out to be made here, and that is being buried under Spicer’s gaffe. The hysteria over chemical weapons seems to have completely obscured the horrors that are routinely spread by conventional weapons.

The effects of concussive and explosive bombs, mortars, grenades, and sweeps of bullets are much greater than those of chemical weapons, simply because they are used much more often. But in many minds, those weapons cause a “cleaner” death. The images that are associated with chemical weapons seem of people, especially children, foaming at the mouth, struggling for breath, or writhing in agony from inhaled poison so much more horrifying.

But perhaps that is because we don’t sufficiently consider the agony of hot shrapnel ripping into flesh and lodging in an organ. Or the pain of being crushed under collapsed rubble, or the shattering of bones from concussive explosions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that some 465,000 people have been killed in the last six years in Syria. Of that total, chemical weapons have been killed some 1,500. The latter deserves our attention, but the former is where the majority of our outrage should be focused.

It’s also worth considering the classification of “chemical weapons.” We tend to think of particular gas weapons under that category. We think of nerve gases, mustard gases, various choking gases, and other lethal vapors.

But what is the difference between these substances and napalm? Most Western countries have used that deadly substance extensively. The death and maiming it brings is torturous, from all accounts. More recently, white phosphorous weapons, which have similar effects, have come into vogue. The United States used it in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein once used it against Iran. Israel controversially used white phosphorous in Gaza, Saudi Arabia uses it in Yemen, the Taliban used it against US forces in Afghanistan, Russia was alleged to have used it in Chechnya, and there are many other examples.

Neither napalm nor white phosphorous is illegal under chemical weapons conventions. But the difference between them and banned weapons is not obvious at all.

The attention to chemical weapons certainly does have its place. Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are all particularly devastating and, crucially, very difficult to confine to only “legitimate” targets. It makes sense that special attention is paid to them, but we need to guard against focusing on them to such an extent that we forget that legal, conventional weaponry kills the vast majority of innocents.

In the film The Lion in Winter, a young Anthony Hopkins, playing Richard the Lionheart, said “I never heard a corpse ask how it got so cold.” In the end, it is bloody, ongoing conflicts, not merely the use of certain weapons in them, that must be stopped or at least stemmed. International law and the United Nations charter provide ways to do that. It’s time we paid attention to fixing the politics that prevents them from doing so.