Putin's destruction of Mariupol shows a cruel and unhinged bully not getting his way

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There’s nothing strategic about bombing a city of nearly half a million people to dust. But that’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing to the coastal Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

There’s nothing strategic about killing civilians. Or targeting an art school sheltering 400 people. Or a theater.

This is not the work of a master military strategist. It’s far simpler. It’s the hideous, unconscionable actions of a bully angry he’s not getting his way.

Putin wanted Ukraine. So he tried to take it. Now he’s losing thousands of soldiers, the world has united against him, and Ukrainians have shown a patriotic ferocity that will be remembered long after Putin is gone and forgotten.

Failure makes bullies like Putin wince

Failure and consequences cause bullies wincing pain. So they escalate. They take greater risks, cause more harm, do anything to relieve that pain, no matter what it means to their victims.

In Mariupol, it means death. The Associated Press called what’s happening to the city “one of the most brutal sieges in modern history.”

'Please help us': Weary voices call from Mariupol, where bodies line streets

Putin is a tormentor on a grand scale, an extreme example of what happens when a bully goes too long without facing consequences. We ignore the simplicity of this catastrophe – an unhinged bully leveling an entire city because he’s mad – at our own peril.

The bullies in our midst here in America are empowered. They’ve found a helpful shield in the phrase “cancel culture,” which can block attempts to hold them accountable. It gins outrage and rallies fellow travelers. It has become an insidious defense for any bad action.

Trump's 'cancel culture' obsession

Not long after invading Ukraine, Putin himself described the global response as an attempt to “cancel” Russia. Perhaps he learned that word from his friend Donald Trump, a bully masterfully skilled at turning consequences into empowering grievances.

We watched Trump’s bullying escalate throughout his presidency, culminating in relentless, and ongoing, attempts to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election. You can draw a straight line from the bully’s wounded ego to the deadly Jan. 6 domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, aimed at halting the nation’s peaceful transfer of power.

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Former President Donald Trump addresses a rally on March 12, 2022, in Florence, S.C.
Former President Donald Trump addresses a rally on March 12, 2022, in Florence, S.C.

Any attempts to hold the former president accountable for his rhetoric – like Twitter and Facebook banning him from their platforms – were met with howls of “Cancel culture!” That is utter nonsense, chum for cruelty addicts who’ve forgotten the possibility that actions have consequences.

Cuomo and Kanye use the shield

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned amid credible allegations of sexual misconduct, had the gall to rail against cancel culture last week, calling it “a social death penalty” and saying: “Our cancel culture mentality today is like modern-day stonings. Remember the stonings in the Bible?”

I do remember those. That’s an absurd comparison, and Cuomo is spouting nonsense.

Chris Cuomo is burning down CNN. And he's taking Don Lemon with him.

(L-R) Kanye West, Pete Davidson
(L-R) Kanye West, Pete Davidson

Rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, has been menacing his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her new boyfriend, Pete Davidson, on social media. That bullying behavior led producers of the upcoming Grammy Awards to cancel his planned performance. As the news broke over the weekend, supporters of Ye took to Twitter to condemn the decision as a despicable example of cancel culture.

It’s not. It’s a consequence for being a boorish bully. And it should happen more often.

Bullying isn't protected behavior

What does it say about our society when people treat bullying like a protected behavior? What does encouraging abusive behavior portend for our future?

Ye isn’t bombing any cities. Cuomo is next door to irrelevant. Trump is facing consequences from so many directions that the cancel-culture shield might not be enough.

But a too-easy acceptance of awfulness invariably lets real danger rise. You don’t see many powerful world figures like Putin come along. It doesn’t take many.

Marlette cartoon: March madness
Marlette cartoon: March madness

For the brave but devastated citizens of Mariupol, it has taken only one. One bully. One tyrant. One monster.

The innocent people fleeing the city, those trapped in basements and shelters or under the rubble of buildings, are suffering the wrath of a small, terrible man whose only strength is eschewing accountability.

Next time you hear someone whining about cancel culture, remember what happens when actions don’t have consequences.

Remember what Mariupol looked like before a bully didn’t get his way.

Follow USA TODAY columnist Rex Huppke on Twitter @RexHuppke and Facebook: facebook.com/RexIsAJerk/

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russian forces pound Mariupol to dust as Putin's war in Ukraine flails