Holocaust

Spicer: Inarticulate and Ineloquent

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Many of you won’t want to hear this, but Sean Spicer was TECHNICALLY correct.

Press Secretary Pressure

Before we get into that though, let’s pause for a second and think about this guy and his very difficult job. How many of you would be able to stand up in front of a hostile crowd of reporters, get asked questions you haven’t prepared for, about subjects you aren’t totally knowledgeable about? What if those questions were about something you knew well, like your job? Would you be able to produce thoughtful and coherent responses on the spot, as you are grilled by the press? My guess would be no, probably not. That is a lot of pressure!

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not a fan of Sean Spicer. I haven’t been impressed with his performance thus far and there have been many other press secretaries who have impressed me by doing a much better job. When I say much better, I mean they were articulate and eloquent, nearly always. Remember, this is a tough job! So, who comes to mind? To name just a few during my “knowingly aware” time paying attention to politics, I would say Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos (both for Clinton), Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, and Dana Perino (all for G.W. Bush), as well as Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney (both for Obama). All of these former press secretaries stand out in my mind because they handled the job well, articulately and eloquently. The press secretary shouldn’t be the story, which Spicer clearly doesn’t seem to grasp.

Difficult Comparison

The subject at hand, however, are Spicer’s comments regarding a comparison of Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons amidst his civil war and Hitler’s use of chemical weapons during WWII and the Holocaust. He was TECHNICALLY correct when he said, originally, and in other interviews as clarification, “[Hitler] didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons…[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing…[I was] trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”

Granted, this is a tough comparison without some context. Context, as journalists should know, is important but many in the room that day (and many others for a week or so thereafter) jumped into the fray and condemned the remarks Spicer made, whether they had done their research for context or not. Therein lies the problem, many (especially in social media circles) jumped on a bandwagon they knew very little about or cared to get clarification about because they were shouting from the mountain tops about how gross an injustice his statements were. And, like usual, there was enough public outcry to cause yet another person to come back with their tail between their legs and offer an apology for something that didn’t really need to be apologized for.

It’s a sensitive subject, I know that. I had taught for years, very passionately, about the WWII and the Holocaust in my own history classroom. My students knew very well about the Holocaust and the personal stories of Jews killed by the Nazis, as well as survivors of the Holocaust. I even included some personal family history in my class. My students would often make comments about how much they learned and how the subject impacted them, about how reading personal accounts and watching movies or viewing images made them feel. Many expressed confusion about how the world could let something like the Holocaust happen, let alone not take direct action to stop it.

So, when I heard Spicer’s comments, I had some context and I knew he was TECHNICALLY correct.

Context, TECHNICALLY Speaking

Context is always important. Taking something out of context can really exacerbate an issue if people don’t understand the topic. This is one of those cases.

Yes, the Nazis and Hitler used chemicals to exterminate Jews. Again, no dispute there. It is well documented history. However, chemical weapons were never used in open combat, to kill combatants or civilians indiscriminately (see the CWC link below or visit A Brief History of Chemical Warfare: Timeline). This is the context to which Spicer was referring. I don’t believe, in any way, was he trying to downplay what was done to the Jews nor was he denying chemicals weren’t used on them.

The Jews were captives, rounded up for the express purpose of killing them in large quantities. Under the liberal and broad definition of chemical weapons, as defined by the Chemical Weapons Convention (signed in 1993 and enforced in 1997), the extermination could be seen as using chemical weapons. However, the CWC is based on the first understanding of what chemical weapons were, as defined by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. To be clear, the standards by which we define chemical weapons today, didn’t exist during WWII. The extermination of Jews wasn’t open combat. It was targeted, deliberate, controlled, and contained. It was horrible and can’t/shouldn’t be forgotten, but it shouldn’t be judged using the same standards as to what Spicer was actually referring to.

Fact Checking

Fact checking has become a must today, not only for politics/politicians but it seems it is seriously needed for media outlets as well. The fact is, not all fact checkers are equal and media outlets that provide fact checking should be suspect from the start. Context : fact checkers pick and choose which facts to check and thus can add to biased information. In general, only one source has been reliably reliable – Factcheck.org . When looking into this issue I found that two fact checking websites that I use often addressed the issue. While one offered a mostly unbiased assessment, the other did not. Fact checking should only present the facts and not offer opinions in order to skew the reader’s opinion.

Unfortunately, what I found when I visited politifact.com left me flummoxed and irritated. What I found was a fact checking sight that seemed to be swayed by public opinion and bandwagon riding. It was spinning the facts in order to join the errant public outcry. Their claim of “Pants On Fire” is a misuse of historical record and their standard for such a claim is based on a definition that didn’t exist at the time of crime.

On the other hand, Factcheck.org addressed the issue with more in-depth research and historical review, as well as more context. In “Hitler and Chemical Weapons” they didn’t say Spicer was wrong, per se, but (probably for fear of liberal backlash) they didn’t say he was right either. Instead, they merely tried to explain why Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons in combat.

Searing Double Standard in the Media

While doing research on this topic, I discovered an incident I didn’t recall or ever even remember hearing about. Interestingly enough, it came from a member of the liberal media while talking on a notoriously liberal media outlet. Also not so surprisingly, I can’t find anything showing he faced a backlash because of his comments. To his credit, however, he stood by his comments and defended Spicer.

The original incident was from Chris Matthews on MSNBC. As far as I can tell, he is still employed (NBCUniversal and Comcast) and there were no calls for his dismissal at the time of his statement. As such, there have not been any calls from the liberal media to fire him as a result of his defending of Spicer either. There have been cries from conservatives for him to be fired, but only to show the double standard the media has when one of the people is their own. He hasn’t been fired, but then neither has Spicer. It would appear the biggest reason for the outcry would be because of the dislike for the president and anything or anyone associated with him, not because someone was disrespecting the victims of the Holocaust or that he got his facts incorrect.

Final Thought

Thankfully, Spicer wasn’t fired over this episode and cooler heads prevailed. He is likely being pushed out of the press secretary’s seat because, as I said at the beginning, of his inarticulate and ineloquent handling of his job. He clearly wasn’t suited for the job from the beginning.

Care should be taken to not redefine and rewrite history simply because it doesn’t fit into today’s newest interpretation of the facts. History is messy and sometimes even offensive. We should be wary of people who try to make it fit their agenda so they can browbeat the unsuspecting into their point of view. Social media is the favorite avenue these days, but the media seems to be participating wholeheartedly.  This needs to stop. Verify, and report. That is all.

NOTE: I realize this blog isn’t being posted in a timely manner (I have been working on it for a long while) and the topic has likely passed from the minds of most readers, but I wanted to get it out there any way.

 

 

 

Duck, Duck, Genocide

 

South Sudan

“If it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

My senior Contemporary Issues (college prep) class has been doing a unit on genocide. I must admit, I lost it in class a little over a week ago. Not in the sense that you are probably thinking, no I didn’t lose me temper with them because they weren’t paying attention or being disrespectful. The fact is, I lost it emotionally. I quite literally and very visibly choked back my emotions as I read to them an article about the latest events happening in South Sudan. We had been, at the time, covering the 1994 Rwandan genocide and watching the film, Sometimes in April, so they were becoming familiar with the events of Rwanda. As I struggled to read the article about South Sudan, it was clear that I was not the only one in the room that was having a hard time with the topic. There was lots of sniffling and the wiping of eyes as they left the room at the end of the period.

It is interesting to watch them struggle with the realities that they face going into the larger world, and the realities of foreign policy. They are now starting to see that those easy and trite solutions they think they have for social or political problems in our country (and maybe around the world) aren’t as easy as they believed. This unit, with help from the Choices curriculum, has been designed to leave as many questions (by my design) as it answers. It gives them a chance to know the history and recognize the significant international challenges facing our nation and others when it comes to difficult issues (genocide, among others). To this point, we have covered Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Sudan (specifically the first event – Darfur). We have now dealt with the recent events in South Sudan and, after looking at the patterns from the other events, there is only one determination to make about what is happening there.

Genocide

I’m not going to beat around the bush here when it comes to what is going on in South Sudan. There may be a civil war, but it has all the markings of genocide, so let’s call it that instead of dancing around the issue and playing with nuances or word games. Then let’s do something about it instead of sitting back and letting it happen again because that phrase, “Never again,” has been uttered one too many times.

How do we know it is genocide? The first place to start is with the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This document outlines the international effort to prevent and punish genocide after the Holocaust of World War II. The most important sections of the document are Articles 2 & 3. These articles define and outline the conditions for which genocide can be determined. Genocide is

Article II
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts
committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,
racial or religious group, as such :
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to
bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Article III
The following acts shall be punishable:
(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide ;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide ;
(e) Complicity in genocide.

Admittedly, genocide can be difficult to define since the definition is a bit vague. My students have realized this as they have pondered the different episodes over time. However, what does seem pretty clear is that human rights should take precedent. No, there are no hard and fast numbers or “check points” for making a definitive determination. There are no “If the number of killings reaches 100, or a 1000,… .” Yet, on the other hand, can the killing of one person (surely the death of any number of people should be reprehensible) be enough for a genocide classification? This creates a rather convenient ambiguity that allows for the international community, or individual countries, to wiggle around events that are genocide. The convention requires that if a country recognizes an event as genocide, they have to do something about it. So, most countries just don’t use “the word.” Even international organizations that are supposed to protect human rights won’t use the word for fear of being held accountable for not doing something about it (see Amnesty International article). It is easier to condemn the events as “ethnic cleansing,” “war crimes,” or “crimes against humanity” so that no real commitment has to be made. NOT doing something falls under Article III, Section E, doesn’t it? Complicity?

Many of the people in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, were hopeful that they had put the violence of the past behind them when they voted for independence from Sudan. However, it didn’t take long for the violence to return. In the very recent past they have descended into ethnic conflicts between the Dinka and Nuer people, which has stemmed from a civil war between the president (a Dinka) and a fired deputy (a Nuer). The atrocities have now become well documented, but the international community continues to call the violence what it really is. On May 8, 2014, the UN released its report, Conflict in South Sudan: A Human Rights Reportwhere it again fails to call the events in South Sudan a genocide. The report does, however, indicate that the atrocities have gone both ways and that no one group is the sole perpetrator in the conflict.

Rwanda

Echoes of Rwanda

In 1994, Rwanda descended into chaos as the Hutus began a systematic and brutal program of extermination of the Tutsis. It took only 100 days for the Hutus to kill over 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers. This was aided, of course by the world not really paying attention to what was going on and dancing around this issue. The information about how and where to do the killings was transmitted over the radio and as a result the radio was used to fan the flames of hatred and incite more violence on the Tutsis. The United States government, supposedly the only country in the world with the technology to block the radio transmissions, debated about the legality of blocking the radio signals and the right to free speech instead of human rights and protecting innocent life.

President Clinton visited Rwanda in 1998 and apologized for our failure to act. After the fact, he acknowledged the genocide.

…I thank especially the survivors of the genocide and those who are working to rebuild your country for spending a little time with us before we came in here…I have come today to pay the respects of my Nation to all who suffered and all who perished in the Rwandan genocide…Rwanda experienced the most extensive slaughter in this blood-filled century we are about to leave—families murdered in their homes, people hunted down as they fled by soldiers and militia, through farmland and woods as if they were animals.

From Kibuye in the west to Kibungo in the east, people gathered seeking refuge in churches by the thousands, in hospitals, in schools. And when they were found, the old and the sick, the women and children alike, they were killed—killed because their identity card [identified them as the targeted group]…It is important that the world know that these killings were not spontaneous or accidental…These events grew from a policy aimed at the systematic destruction of a people. The ground for violence was carefully prepared, the airwaves poisoned with hate…All of this was done, clearly, to make it easy for otherwise reluctant people to participate in wholesale slaughter…

…In their fate, we are reminded of the capacity for people everywhere, not just in Rwanda, and certainly not just in Africa but the capacity for people everywhere, to slip into pure evil. We cannot abolish that capacity, but we must never accept it. And we know it can be overcome…The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began…we owe to all the people in the world our best efforts to organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events. And where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror.

So let us challenge ourselves to build a world in which no branch of humanity, because of national, racial, ethnic, or religious origin, is again threatened with destruction because of those characteristics of which people should rightly be proud. Let us work together as a community of civilized nations to strengthen our ability to prevent and, if necessary, to stop genocide….We have seen, too—and I want to say again—that genocide can occur anywhere. It is not an African phenomenon and must never be viewed as such. We have seen it in industrialized Europe; we have seen it in Asia. We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence. (emphasis added)

Recently it was reported out of South Sudan that the radio was once again being used to incite hatred and further propagate violence against the Nuer people. This can only serve as a stark reminder and prove that the lessons of Rwanda have not been learned. This use of the radio is an explicit mirroring of Rwanda and can’t be denied as anything different. There are reports of young girls, as young as 10 (see UN report mentioned previously) being gang raped by as many as 10 men. There are reports of other women who won’t submit to gang rape being sexually tortured with large sticks, leading to their deaths. Again, like Rwanda, places that should be safe – schools, hospitals, churches, UN compounds – are being attacked and large numbers of people being killed. (Another report) Estimates continue to grow for refugees, now at a million or so, and there is real fear of famine by the end of the year because the conflict has kept them from planting the necessary crops for the food supply.

 The United States and United Nations Response

The United States has done very little when it comes to responding to this genocide, so why would this occasion be any different?. We didn’t do anything in Rwanda, we waited too long to act when it came to Darfur, Sudan, and now we are going to do the same thing when it comes to South Sudan. When the latest atrocities were exposed as “Piles and piles of bodies…” (article) the world seemed to take notice finally. It got lots of coverage across the world. That very same day, the White House released a press statement that summed up the known facts of the killings and called them an “abomination,” but their condemnation stopped there. Essentially the message was, “We’re monitoring the situation, but we aren’t going to do anything.” On May 1st, 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry actually mentioned the word genocide as a possibility (if the acts continue) but has yet to identify the events in South Sudan as genocide.

There are very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic, tribal, targeted, nationalistic killings taking place that raise serious questions, and were they to continue in the way that they have been going could really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide. (article)

So, if I understand him right, these events could lead to genocide. Has he read the Genocide Convention? If the events are similar to Rwanda and we called it genocide after the fact, then why not step up and call it that now?

It seems that one guy in Congress, Frank Wolf, has the right idea. He has called on the President to do more for and in South Sudan. He has used President Clinton’s failure in Rwanda as his basis as well. He says that since we were a major player in helping South Sudan become an independent nation that we have a “moral obligation” to intervene.

This week the Obama administration has given lip service to the issue, but has largely only postured politically by issuing economic sanctions on the military commanders (mind you this is just two people) from both sides while not including the key leaders of both sides. The effect of these sanctions will be minimal, if anything at all, as the targeted individuals may or may not do business or have assets in the U.S. The U.S. has spoken to the neighboring countries and they have agreed “in principle” to take similar actions, but this will likely be ineffectual as well.

The United Nations has approximately 26,000 peacekeepers in the country (more than Rwanda at the beginning of that genocide) and there are several areas that refugees have gone for protection. But when those compounds are being attacked and people killed or chased off into the surrounding landscape, it is rather ineffectual. The UN mission hasn’t yet been expanded to “protect the population,” although there have been requests to do so. The UN Security Council has met and supposedly is doing an investigation, but those take time (too much time) and how many more lives will be lost as a result of wasted time?

It only took Rwanda 100 days to blow up into a major humanitarian disaster. “Never again” has been used too many times and it always come back to “again.” Again we are dealing with evidence of genocide, even if it is being committed by both sides. Again the world debates about what to do. Again international organizations remain impotent to deal with a humanitarian crisis involving the deliberate destruction of human life. Again the U.S. sits back and watches while human suffering is evident. Again innocent people are looking for help from the rest of the world and get none.

Again.