Thinking About Spicer’s Chemical Weapons Gaffe

White House press secretary Sean Spicer talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 10, 2017. Spicer discussed Syria, Trump's first one hundred days in office an... White House press secretary Sean Spicer talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, April 10, 2017. Spicer discussed Syria, Trump's first one hundred days in office and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) MORE LESS
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Let me share a few thoughts on Sean Spicer’s latest self-inflicted wound.

As you know, Spicer started off trying to make an argument about Assad by arguing that even Adolf Hitler hadn’t used chemical weapons during World War II. In a polarized and fractious environment, this was obviously an ill-advised argument. Spicer is such a doofus that in trying to explain and clean up the comment he managed to make it worse with clumsy claims that he didn’t use chemical weapons against “his own people.”

This is actually complicated since there is an important point to be made here – just Spicer is too much of an idiot to make it. It is a testament to the power of the international ban on the use of chemical weapons that even while he was committing an historic genocide and committing mass murder in the east even separate from the killing of Jews, Hitler still didn’t use battlefield chemical weapons as they had been used in World War I.

This tells us nothing about what “level” Hitler would sink to. There was no level Hitler wouldn’t sink to. Hitler and his followers invented industrialized genocide. But this was a norm – a highly public one – he chose not to transgress. There is evidence that the Germans did use toxic smoke weapons in very limited cases in the east. (Different rules always applied in the east, for a host of reasons.) But by and large they didn’t use them, certainly not in the west.

Why he didn’t do so is up for some debate. Probably in some part it was because of the ban itself and what amounts to the battle for global public opinion. It was probably also because using chemical weapons against the allies might have prompted them to do the same in return. Somewhere on the list was likely the fact that chemical weapons aren’t always very effective tactical weapons compared to conventional arms. Wind changes direction. A well trained army trains soldiers to use gas masks. It’s no accident that since World War I, the rare uses of chemical weapons have been as terror weapons against civilians, as Saddam Hussein did with the Kurds in the 1980s and Assad has during the Syrian Civil War.

It is worth noting that Hitler did not advertise the Final Solution as it was happening. It wasn’t a secret. Details were leaking out through the war. But the Nazis concealed as much as they could. The same went for the wholesale murder of non-Jews in the east. The point about Hitler and battlefield chemical weapons isn’t that he wouldn’t ‘stoop’ to a level that Assad would. That’s a morally and historically imbecilic argument. It’s that global bans and norms can sometimes restrain the actions even of the most evil and genocidal people. This is probably the best argument about why these norms are important to enforce.

Of course, Hitler was also carrying out the Final Solution and millions of the dead died by gassing in organized killing centers. (People are much less familiar with the fact that a huge amount of the early killing was done with firearms and mass graves in the east as the German Army overran Poland and Ukraine.) This is gas used as a killing agent, not in shells. So this is a moronic path to go down when trying to make propaganda points against Assad and Russia. Spicer is simply too big a boob not to know this and too inept to clean up his mess without digging deeper. This doesn’t defend Hitler and it doesn’t defend Spicer’s doofusery. This wasn’t a level Hitler wouldn’t ‘stoop’ to. The point is precisely that these norms can be important to defend precisely because they can constrain the evil as much as the good and the indifferent. The non-use of chemical weapons in World War II is a good illustration of that.

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