It’s been genuinely striking to watch the reaction the Jamal Khashoggi Affair has provoked in the highest halls of international power. Not much, one might have thought, could bring US Republican and Democratic Senators together so soon after the Brett Kavanaugh brawl. Yet Wednesday saw Senate Foreign Relations Committee members from both sides of the aisle join forces to push Donald Trump to act on the disappearance and possible assassination of the Saudi Arabian writer, invoking the so-called Magnitsky Act that would allow the president to sanction whomever he may deem responsible for the crime, potentially including “the highest ranking officials in the Government of Saudi Arabia,” as the Senators’ letter put it.
This followed indignant statements from senior officials in other Western governments, including the foreign ministers of Britain and France. The Anglo-American world’s leading newspapers, meanwhile, have run non-stop, blow-by-blow coverage of the developing details, filling their op-ed pages at the same time with dozens of columns analyzing the story inside-out.
One can only encourage all this, and wish the Senators every success. I have spoken to Khashoggi by phone perhaps half a dozen times in recent years, in my capacity as a reporter prior to joining Al-Jumhuriya. Even though I was a nobody, writing for a non-mainstream publication with a limited readership, he was never too busy to take my call, and always answered my questions in full, seeming at times to genuinely enjoy the conversation. Any journalist will tell you generosity and grace of this kind are rare in people with a tenth of Jamal’s profile and status. I say this to stress that I feel not the slightest resentment at the attention his agonizing disappearance has earned; again, I wish only for the light of scrutiny to grow brighter, and extend further.
Still, the question persists: why has the Khashoggi Affair got so much attention? The spy-novelesque details about hit squads and “bone saws” and body parts shipped off in diplomatic bags play an obvious part, to be sure. So does the fact he writes a regular column for one of the biggest papers in the world, the Washington Post, who have done a commendable job making the maximum noise about their colleague’s ordeal, with no apparent concern for the ‘access’ this may cost them with the Riyadh regime henceforth.
These factors in themselves, however, are insufficient to explain why Capitol Hill has been roused to action. It may be, of course, that some or most of the Foreign Relations Committee members in question know Khashoggi themselves, and feel a personal obligation to take a stand. If so, this would only underscore what I think is the deeper psychological reason, which is that, for once, Saudi’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”), has hit someone powerful people in the West think of as one of their own. One senses this, for instance, in Elliott Abrams’ Washington Post column yesterday, in which he freely declared himself a supporter of the “despot” MBS (his word, not mine), but regretted the “mistake” it would represent if Khashoggi had indeed been whacked. The message is clear: we were fine when you were only killing people nobody cares about over in your part of the world, like the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (beheaded in 2016), or starving Yemeni schoolchildren, or mentally-ill domestic workers. But Khashoggi speaks English, wears Western clothes, knows his way around fashionable American and European cities, talks at the summits and conferences of the global political elite. He is, in other words, an actual human, just like us. For Chrissakes, Mo, you don’t kill humans!
Abrams closes his column by saying he’ll get back to supporting Bin Salman’s “enlightened” despotism (again, his word) if the latter will just admit his unfortunate slip here and never do it again. There are some policies so contemptible that only Council on Foreign Relations experts could advocate them. To the rest of us, whatever Khashoggi’s exact fate turns out to be, it ought to be clearer than ever that despotism is incompatible with Enlightenment, and that the moral and political task is to bring ourselves to see that the hundreds, if not thousands, already killed by MBS’ Saudi were also Jamal Khashoggis; also humans, just like us.