(RNS) The Passover haggadah famously teaches that there are four children: the wise child; the wicked (or rebellious) child; the simple child, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask.
We might have to invent a whole new intellectual category to describe White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
At a press briefing, Spicer said not even Adolf Hitler used chemical weapons in World War II the way Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people.
“You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said.
When a reporter asked Spicer to clarify his remarks, Spicer did a great Porky Pig imitation, hemmed and hawed, and said: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
Reporters suggested that Spicer might — might! — want to think of the Holocaust.
“He brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that,” Spicer said.
“But in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns and dropped them down…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,” he said.
I think that those would be gas chambers.
Thanks, Spicer, for your sweet wishes for a good Pesach.
Now, let’s take a hike into Spicer’s brain, and try to unpack what he might have thought that he was trying to say.
Spicer was making a distinction between the delivery methods of the gases in question.
In Spicer’s moral universe, it is “worse” for a tyrant to drop poison gas into a city via airplane than, say, down the chutes of a gas chamber.
Not buying it.
Death of civilians = death of civilians.
Was Spicer, perhaps, saying that when Hitler dropped Zyklon B pellets into the gas chambers that, at least, Hitler was not gassing his own people — because Hitler did not consider the Jews his own people?
Sean, Sean, Sean: you cannot want to go there.
Was Spicer saying that, in the international Genocidal Evil Tournament, Assad beats Hitler?
I am not among those who believe that it is invalid to ever compare any horror to the Holocaust.
Quite the opposite: to rule such comparisons off the table is to place the Holocaust in such a rarified place in the human imagination as to make it impossible to learn anything from it.
But, we have to be very cautious in making such comparisons.
Whatever else is happening in Syria (and who among us can dispassionately view the photographs of dying children?), it is not a holocaust, and it is not The Holocaust.
Those children are the victims of a complex internal war in Syria.
Assad never issued an order to wipe out an entire people.
He has not summoned Syrian industry, academia, and national philosophy into a lethal conspiracy to kill his people.
I would like to say that Spicer’s statement was unbelievable.
Actually, it was all too believable.
This is, after all, an administration that issued a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day — a statement which just happened to say nothing about Jews.
That was an act of what Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt calls “soft Holocaust denial.” (No Passover pun intended here).
Spicer’s recent comment — and his ham-fisted attempt to recoup some kind of coherence — is but a continuation of such denial.
So, back to the four children of the Passover haggadah.
What new child does this administration represent?
We are way beyond “simple,” and way beyond “the one who doesn’t even know how to ask.”
It is almost uncharted intellectual territory.
These are the children who simply make s_____ up as they go along.
And that is far, far worse.