Ancient truth: invariably, it’s the inadvertent remark, the throwaway comment that tells the real story. Not the carefully scripted words that amount to pabulum. You have seen it again and again and most recently, you saw it with Sean Spicer, President Donald Trump’s White House Press Secretary.

As a response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons in a rebel-held territory, the US President had ordered cruise missile strikes at a Syrian air force base last week. At a press conference on April 11, Spicer tried to defend the US action, the first direct involvement by the country in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Now, there is plenty to criticise about this missile attack – equally, there is plenty to justify it. Spicer, though, thought he would help his administration’s case by invoking Godwin’s Law: bring in that universally reviled paragon of evil, Adolf Hitler.

Thus Spicer began by telling the assembled journalists about the millions who died in the Holocaust: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” for that slaughter. This is one breathtakingly false, breathtakingly stupid assertion.

Anyone who has heard the term “gas chambers” knows as much. In Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and other concentration camps, Hitler’s Nazi regime shoved thousands upon thousands into such chambers and killed them using vehicle exhaust fumes, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide (the infamous “Zyklon B”). Those happen to be chemicals.

But if that was a stupid lie, Spicer really put his foot in it – and here’s the throwaway comment – with what he said next: Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing”.

Between the lines

First: that’s false again. Among Hitler’s first victims were Germans whom his Nazis decided to “euthanise”. All through World War II, he slaughtered German Jews, among plenty of others, in gas chambers. By definition, then, many of the millions murdered during the Holocaust were Hitler’s “own people”.

Second: the phrase “his own people” carries even more baggage. Because, what if Spicer was right and Hitler did use gas not on Germans, but on some “other people”? Or what if Assad dropped his chemical weapons on a village in Thane district, clearly populated not by Syrians, but by some “other people”? Would those be in any sense lesser crimes?

That is the nauseating implication.

Nauseating, too, because of the sly and morally decrepit line Spicer draws through populations – like many before him have done and many still do today. Hitler was able to persuade Germans that Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and whoever else were indeed some “other people” – indeed, maybe not really people at all like the “real” Germans were. Therefore they were unfit to live and could be slaughtered. Pol Pot did much the same in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge movement in in the ‘70s and Hutu radio stations did much the same by fuelling hatred against Tutsis during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

Off the cuff

Massacres like those are the horrific but logical climax of such line-drawing, of course. But even if we don’t get near there, plenty of us who are horrified by Hitler draw lines in our own minds anyway. Every now and then there is an inadvertent glimpse of them, and each tells a true story. Consider some examples.

  • In March, Indian-American activist Shree Chauhan confrontedSean Spicer at an Apple store in Washington about working for the Trump administration. I believe she was unnecessarily and excessively rude – she herself says she was “impolite” – to Spicer, and that’s probably why he largely ignored her. But at one point he did say: “[This is] such a great country that allows you to be here.”   “Allows” her? She’s every bit as American as Spicer. It’s unlikely that he would have said the same thing to a white American who asked him the same rude questions.
  • A man I used to work with played club cricket. He was a Marathi speaker, like everyone else on his team. Two players were Muslim. In telling me about the matches they had played, he invariably referred to the majority of the team as “Maharashtrian”, and these two as “Mussalman”. “Are they not Maharashtrian?” I asked him once. He looked at me, slightly baffled. “No, they’re Mussalman.”  Does being Mussalman rule out being Maharashtrian? Are Maharashtrians, by definition, Hindu?  
  • In a recent effort to show Indians are not racist, Bharatiya Janata Party Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay famously said thisearlier in April: “. “If we were racist, why would....all the entire South – you know, Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?...We have black people around us.”  This makes you wonder who Vijay means by “we”. He would never admit to it, I’m sure, but his words speak loudly of the line that’s firmly in place in his mind.
  • In September 2015, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma explainedwhy New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road was being renamed after former President Abdul Kalam, who had died in July that year: “Aurangzeb Road has been renamed after a great man who, despite being a Muslim, was a nationalist and humanist, APJ Abdul Kalam.” Want to know how Sharma looks out at his world? That phrase “despite being a Muslim” says everything.   

Vijay and Spicer have apologised. That’s as it should be. But the sheer disingenuousness of remarks like these says something: you will hear the likes of them again.

After all, lines don’t get erased all that easily.