It is both deeply disturbing and highly instructive how it is a single life that often changes a debate fundamentally. As I read several reports about the alleged death by murder of the Washington Post columnist of Saudi origin, Jamal Khashoggi, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, I juxtapose it with civilian deaths in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has played a leading role in carrying out airstrikes in Yemen against the Houthi rebels. Estimates about civilian deaths because of the often indiscriminate airstrikes vary but the numbers touch thousands, including a large number of children. That one fact alone should have brought Saudi Arabia’s conduct into serious question among the international community but it hasn’t.
It is here that the alleged murder of Khashoggi that comes into play. Turkey’s strong contention that Jamal was indeed murdered inside the Saudi consulate and his body disposed off after being dismembered has thrown diplomatic equations between the United States and Saudi Arabia into serious jeopardy. What the likely thousands of civilians deaths could not achieve appears to have been forced by Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance.
As a report in The New York Times says this morning:
“Most important, from the perspective of lawmakers, Saudi Arabia has continued to kill civilians in Yemen with errant airstrikes, in a much-criticized intervention masterminded by Prince Mohammed in that country’s civil war.
Reports of Mr. Khashoggi’s potentially grim fate have only fed the criticism from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have long been wary of Saudi religious extremism and ties to terrorism.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of Mr. Trump’s closest allies in Congress, said that if the Saudis were responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death, there would be “hell to pay.”
“I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” he said. “If this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
Without Khashoggi’s America connection because of his association as a columnist with The Washington Post I doubt if the uproar would have been so strong as it is now. Even then the Trump administration had until recently been rather coy about a full-throated public questioning of Riyadh’s suspected role. As the crisis has intensified, President Trump finally told this to ‘Fox & friends’, “Well, we’re looking at it very, very seriously. I don’t like it at all. Now, you don’t have American citizens, but that, in this case, doesn’t matter. I don’t like it. I don’t like it with respect to reporters. It is a terrible, terrible precedent. We can’t let it happen.”
One reason why Washington is hesitant to push Riyadh more strongly has to do with the $110 billion dollars worth of arms purchases that the latter has agreed to. However, as the Times points out the purchases so far have fallen far short of that amount.
It is hardly a secret that throughout human history some individual lives have mattered much more than thousands of others even though civilizations like to pretend that all lives matter. Is it anybody’s case that when an airstrike occurs over a civilian neighborhood the deaths and maiming would be any less devastating than what Khashoggi is reported to have faced? Also, is it anybody’s case that mass civilian deaths are less conscionable and inhumane than a single individual’s even if that happens to be an influential journalist?
Unfortunately, these questions are easier asked than resolved because I cannot envision a day when this grotesque inequity will actually be erased. I don’t think it ever will be.