Jeremy Bowen’s interview on the BBC with Bashar al-Assad of Syria has certainly provoked a great deal of questioning. Did Assad believe what he was saying, especially about “barrel bombs”? Was he deluded, or in denial? How could he sit there seemingly making light of the enormity of the suffering and human misery that surrounded him?

Criminology, Psychology and Sociology can help to provide us with some of the answers both at an individual level and more broadly.

At the individual level many will be familiar with “cognitive distortions” – those ways that allow the mind to convince you of something that simply isn’t true; that reality isn’t as it seems. Such cognitive distortions include “black and white thinking” – you are either with me or against me – with no grey in between.

Matza’s “techniques of neutralisation” also help to explain why Assad seems to joke about, or at least make light of, issues related to the reality (see Human Rights Watch reports) that his troops routinely drop, indiscriminate “barrel bombs”, which is a war crime. Joking merely allows Assad to dismiss this charge as less than serious; as beneath his contempt. This way of neutralising the seriousness of the allegation reminds me of offenders who dismiss the seriousness of their crimes because they were “drunk”, “with friends” or “on holiday” when they occurred.

However, we also have to remember that Assad is the head of state, and so when he speaks he does so not just as an individually but officially.

So what’s going on here? What allows Assad to seem so blasé about human suffering?

The late Stan Cohen talked about there being three “states of denial”: literal denial; interpretive denial; and implicatory denial. The first – literal denial – simply denies that the “facts” or events which you claim are true did not happen. There’s a temptation to see Assad’s comments from this perspective, but that would be wrong.

Interpretive denial agrees that the events did indeed happen, but they should be interpreted differently. In other words, that they have another meaning from the one which is implied, or that the state has been accused. It’s here, I believe that we can begin to understand Assad.

His light-heartedness about barrel bombs wasn’t so much about literal denial, but more to do with the fact that he was trying to imply “what do you expect? There’s a war going on! Of course we are killing people, as they would kill us if they were able to.” There’s also a link here to implicatory denial, which would neither deny the facts nor the meaning that is applied to them, but simply refuses to accept that they are moral, political or indeed psychological implications which flow from those facts.

Finally, we might also employ Goffman and his idea of “the presentation of self”. Assad is a dictator, but he wants to guide and control how Bowen – and by extension the viewer – might see him. He doesn’t want to be thought of as a ruthless dictator, but an urbane, civilised and decent man, and so he wants to control and guide the interview as much as possible. Bowen is skilled enough to see through this, despite the setting in which the interview takes place.

You might think that all of this is rather rare. I’m reminded that Syria’s biggest sponsor is Russia, and so too we have to remember that President Putin is currently denying that there are any Russian troops in the Ukraine.

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David Wilson

David Wilson

Programme Director MA CJPP/ Criminology