What We Can Learn from Spicer’s Gaffes

by Mitchell Plitnick

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.

Photo of Sean Spicer by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. Spicer is an idiot. Trump is the most dangerous individual on the planet since…Barack Obama. Fine. But the statement, “Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons,” is true. It is a remarkable fact of history that despite the Nazis’ barbarity, Germany never did deploy chemical weapons in WWII, despite their widespread use in WWI.

    Prior to the Spicer “gaffe,” both the approved and demotic Holocaust language never classified “Zyklon B” as a “weapon”–that is, a munition, the obvious and unavoidable connotation in Spicer’s referent to Assad’s alleged sarin gas bomb. As this example shows, the official Keepers of Holocaust language denounce any use of any term associated with the Holocaust whenever doing so serves to promote sympathy for Zionism and Zionists. I’ve no doubt that any claim before “Spicer’s gaffe” that “Hitler dropped Zyklon B bombs on civilians” would have provoked an equally vehement outrage by the Keepers and their media enablers. “How dare he claim that a gas created to murder Jews was used for some other reason!”

  2. The Hitler card is most often gratuitously invoked by Israelis of the Netanyahu mold in describing adversaries from Gemal Abdel Nasser to Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad.

  3. “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.”

    I think you’re exactly right, and would add only that such matters not given sufficient consideration because it is not shown on television. In fact, such images are so offensive and disturbing that the networks will not broadcast them.

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