Demonizing Putin vs. Behaving Responsibly

After presenting evidence that all sides bear some of the responsibility for the loss of 298 lives on Malaysian Air Flight 17, my recent Huffington Post article concludes, “Even without the above evidence, common sense alone would question the overly simplified narrative we have been fed in which the carnage in Ukraine is all Putin’s fault. Wars bring out the worst on all sides, and to be effective in preventing future tragedies such as MH17, we need to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for our own mistakes.”

One of the most egregious forms of blame is to paint the other side as being in league with the devil, and Saturday’s edition of my local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, did precisely that when it picked up a Mike Luckovich political cartoon showing the devil holding a black box marked PUTIN’S SOUL, and saying, “I retrieved the black box” – a clear reference to MH17. A web search on images of Putin as devil turns up a number of related caricatures.

Comparing Putin to Hitler as Hillary Clinton did in March, similarly feeds our basest emotions and prevents us from responding rationally – which is at the heart of our behaving responsibly, both linguistically and logically.

Demonizing others feeds a false sense of moral superiority typical of irresponsible adolescents. If we want to behave maturely, responsibly, and effectively we need to do what I suggest in the Huffington Post article:

Putin is far from blameless, but we have no control over his actions and complete control over our own. So, to be effective we need to search in the dark recesses of our own nation’s soul, rather than cast stones at others.

Martin Hellman


About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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2 Responses to Demonizing Putin vs. Behaving Responsibly

  1. Tony says:

    Dear Professor,

    Why do you think there is this seemingly orchestrated effort on the part of the western media to demonize and ridicule Russia and China? In a society where freedom of speech is protected, is a coordinated propaganda campaign by major media possible? If so, what would motivate the mainstream media to participate in such a campaign? Is there a profit incentive? Is there political pressure? Is it just simply a sense of patriotism to side with the US led western world? What do you think are the forces behind it?

    Few of us can travel to places to do our own investigations into the major events around the world, so we have to get our stories secondhand from different sources. With the explosion of information on the internet, it is hard to know who to trust. How do we then get informed?

    Thank you!

  2. Nuclear Risk says:


    You ask an excellent question, which I have also wondered about. I won’t pretend to have a complete answer, but see three likely factors at work.

    First, there’s “group think,” in which people are afraid to break with the group mentality for fear of being seen as crazy when everyone else “knows” that things are a certain way – which it turns out they aren’t. Just go back and read what was said about slavery in the 1850’s or women’s suffrage in in the early 1900’s. It’s stunning from today’s vantage point. (For a good example of what even Northerners were saying about slavery, check out my course Handout #8 and jump to the section “Was there hope of abolishing slavery?” on page 4.)

    Second, there’s a feedback loop in which people tend to believe what the media say, and the media can’t say what the people would see as “crazy,” no matter how true it is. My earlier blog post Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 9: Iraq has several examples of this, particularly that Phil Donahue’s show was canceled at least partly because he raised the questions that the media should have been asking. The media also have to worry about sponsors leaving if they are seen as unpatriotic (i.e., asking questions they should) in the lead up to a war.

    Third, the media understandably tends to report what the government tells them as fact because that’s how they maintain access to government sources. Even when a newspaper reports government statements as statements, rather than established facts, just adding “According to government officials …” doesn’t make most readers question the accuracy. This then feeds back into the second point above.


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