15 Simple Words


On April 7th reports quickly spread of a major chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria. Although the OPCW Fact Finding Mission is still investigating the veracity of reports from groups in Douma, several nations have released their own national assessments of the attack. Many have concluded that there was in fact a chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian armed forces as part of a wider offensive under the direction of Syrian President Bashar Assad. National and UN-level debates about fault and the appropriate response have ensued. In the early hours of Friday April 13th, the United States, France, and the UK launched coordinated missile strikes on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Later that evening, President Trump explained his view on the strikes and the Syrian President in a televised address to the nation.

I listened Trump’s address as I brushed my teeth before bed. It seemed like a boilerplate response, and I was about to switch to some music when Trump said something that caught my attention. 

“These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”

I rewound the segment and played it back again.

“These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.”

I frowned, causing toothpaste to dribble out of the corner of my mouth. After washing my face and hair, I decided it wasn’t quite time for bed yet. I put on a pot of water for tea, sat down in front of my laptop, and started writing.

What struck me so much about those fifteen words? Trump had been referring to Assad, and certainly the chemical weapons attack was a horrible crime. Surely only a monster could be capable of such an atrocity. Yet the implication of Trump’s first words troubled me. “These are not the actions of a man.”

The trouble is that Assad’s actions derive in part from choices he makes, and he is a man. Certainly his actions are criminal, and his character monstrous. But he is not a monster doing crimes. He is a human making choices, and this distinction matters. 

When we obscure Assad’s humanity, we enable the same ideology he uses to justify his actions.  This much is obvious. What troubles me is that by dehumanizing Assad and reducing his choices to crimes, we forget the power and responsibility of our subjectivity. A monster is powerless to be anything else, and the concept of crime is too often far removed from the choices people make to commit them. Monsters can be scary and manic, or cunning and murderous, but in general, all monsters are one-dimensional creatures with only the bad stuff. When Assad is reduced to a monster, all the complexity and contradiction that characterizes being human is flattened out of him. It’s easy to hate a monster, and when we construct a narrative that claims ‘there are us humans, and then there are monsters’, we leave no possibility that Assad the monster can change. What’s more, this binary narrative no longer requires us to acknowledge how we are complicit in actively bringing about a world where Assad has the power to make the devastating choices he does. 

By naming Assad a person and his crimes choices, we recognize the possibility for change. While we don’t have many tools to change the nature of monsters (except Pixar, perhaps), we do have lots of experience guiding our own human nature. In other words, we have some power to influence the direction of our evolution! 

We can, for example, track our creative influence through time by looking at how the choices of some people have led the average human lifespan in the Global North to double since the 17th century. Our longer lives have incredible implications, from the number of times our DNA replicates to the impacts we have on planetary cycles and non-human life. But this moment in our evolutionary journey is not simply another identical chink in life’s impenetrably armored succession of days. Life is not determined by a machine on autopilot or a one-dimensional monster whose fate is forever sealed by its unchanging nature. Rather, this moment is the present iteration in a global process of individual and social change where life and culture blend together, mediated by constraints and chance and, notably, choice. 

Fifteen simple words. “These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.” It’s an easy thing to say, and seemingly inconsequential. But if these words obfuscate the role of human choice in action, we risk perpetuating a one-dimensional ideology devoid of our full accountability, complicity, and the potential for change.

About the Author: Matt Nock is a third-year PhD student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research is at the intersection of sustainability education and public pedagogy, and focuses on the ways in which the dominant discourses of social and environmental oppression are reproduced or challenged through formal and informal learning processes.