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.

Changing Course: Mahmoud Abbas At The UNGA

Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.

Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval. Continue reading

Holocaust Survivors Counter Elie Wiesel’s Hateful Ad

Like many Jews of my generation and subsequent ones, I read Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” when I was very young. I was moved,

Elie Wiesel doesn't want to hear about human rights when it comes to Israel

Elie Wiesel doesn’t want to hear about human rights when it comes to Israel

frightened and terribly saddened by the horrors Wiesel and millions of others suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

But Wiesel has failed to learn the lessons of his own experience. Rather than universalizing the call to end the oppression of people regardless of the race, religion or beliefs of either the oppressed or the oppressor, Wiesel has made a special exception for Israel.

For decades, Wiesel was notably silent when it came to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But in recent years, he has broken that silence not to defend millions of people suffering under occupation but to be an apologist and even defender of some of Israel’s worst excesses. That state of affairs reached something of a zenith recently when Wiesel, along with the crazed fanatical “rabbi” Smuley Boteach, placed ads defending Israel’s murderous onslaught on Gaza. The terminology they used would have made Goebbels proud.

In short, Elie Wiesel has become a monster, in a very real sense.

I’m gratified to say that not every Holocaust survivor has dealt with their trauma by cowering in tribalism and spewing the kind of venom Wiesel does. Some of them have organized an open letter condemning Wiesel, Israel’s assault on Gaza and the international community for supporting it. Continue reading

Barbarians At The Gate

The Anti-Defamation League put out an exhaustive poll to find out how much anti-Semitism there is in the world. The poll is fatally flawed, with questions that often don’t describe anti-Semitism but a broader fear of the other, a weak standard for passing the anti-Semitism bar and other issues. Yet, with all of that, it found that 26% of the world holds some of what they defined as “anti-Semitic views.” That is, actually, a remarkably low number, but the ADL and Israel sounded the alarm bells. I explore this further in Souciant this week.

Just Say No to Peace

This week’s piece in Souciant reminds my readers that I don’t write the headlines there. The piece actually follows up my article last week on Greta Berlin, the Christian letter regarding aid to Israel and anti-Semitism. This time, though, I single out J Street, unfortunately, for its sad behavior regarding the US role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.