Most of us like to think that civilized governments don’t murder people.
They might go to war, or sanction assassinations. Former U.S. president Barack Obama gloried in the successful killing of Osama bin Laden, and developed a notable enthusiasm for drone strikes against perceived enemies, even at the cost of civilian deaths. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, he ordered his first strike just three days after taking office, causing as many as 20 civilian casualties. Nonetheless, he added another 540 strikes over the next eight years.
Murder is different, however. Murder is what Saudi Arabia evidently committed on Jamal Khashoggi. The man had done nothing any reasonable person would consider a crime. A little public criticism of the Saudi Crown Prince was his only offence. All the evidence to date suggests he was killed — perhaps also tortured and dismembered — either because he upset Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or, according to the latest Saudi explanation, because he resisted being drugged and kidnapped and died inadvertently from a chokehold. On Fox News, President Trump’s news source of choice, the claim was dismissed as “
People are outraged at Khashoggi’s death, as well they should be. Yet the world has been treated fairly regularly to the use of murder as a political tool. People who annoy Russian President Vladimir Putin are bumped off all the time. They get shot in the street, poisoned in restaurants, are found hanging from bridges or strangled in their homes. Nikolai Glushkov, one of the more recent victims, was discovered dead in his home the day he was due in court in a case involving the Russian airline Aeroflot that was deemed potentially embarrassing to Moscow’s security services.
They are a wealthy country in a part of the world that doesn’t share any of the notions of tolerance, equality, rights or fairness that we do
North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-un treats murder as a handy means of eliminating competition as well. He is believed to have had his uncle and mentor executed, supposedly for plotting with the Chinese to depose him. His half-brother — who was allegedly set to take his place — was killed in a Malaysian airport when two women smeared poison on his face. People disappear into Iranian jails, and only their corpses leave. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian ruler, drops barrel bombs and chemical weapons on opponents and innocents alike.
What’s different about the Saudis appears to lie in public perception. We see Kim Jong-un as a barbarous dictator, whose family has turned their country into the equivalent of a slave state. So, a couple of blatant murders is entirely in character. When Putin seizes foreign territory, supports proxy wars or props up men like Assad, he claims to do so in the name of history, state security or Russian international influence. He denies knowledge of the most flagrant killings, though with little credibility. In practice he’s seen in the West as a rival and threat, not a friend and ally along the lines of the Saudis. He’s a former KGB agent, a Soviet loyalist, and we don’t expect much of him. Occasionally, as in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, we punish him with sanctions and harsh words, the main effect of which is to salve our own feelings.
Saudi Arabia is no freer or democratic than Russia. If anything it’s more of a dictatorship: The House of Saud is the absolute ruler, free of any serious threat of overthrow. Putin will eventually leave the scene, the Saudi Royal family will simply appoint another of their members to the crown. The King and his heirs oversee a fiercely repressive regime of vast inequality. The Saudi idea of groundbreaking reform is to let women get drivers’ licences. Yet it receives favoured treatment in the West, because of its oil wealth and strategic importance. It is a rare Middle Eastern power that purports to be a friend and ally of more democratic powers. Even Canada sells it military equipment.
Friends are valuable in that part of the world, given its volatility and potential for serious and painful disruption. When they aren’t at home pretending to be devout disciples of Allah, wealthy Saudis eagerly embrace all the West’s extravagance and vices. Since they’re happy to act like us when in our midst, maybe we expect them to share our values, like not killing journalists over a little mild criticism.
The problem with the Khashoggi murder is that it shatters that pleasant illusion. It demonstrates that the Saudis aren’t really like us at all. They are a wealthy country in a part of the world that doesn’t share any of the notions of tolerance, equality, rights or fairness that we do. Many in their population might — which is a big reason many of them will use desperate means to escape their world and come to ours — but the institutions of government, state and authority exist to protect themselves and their privileges above all else, at the expense of human life if necessary.
It’s that brutishness that feeds the alarmism in Europe and North America over immigration, despite the fact most migrants are merely people who want to escape that world and live in a better one. Our horror at Khashoggi’s murder shouldn’t halt us from welcoming them, but it should rid us of any delusions about the nature of the regimes they’re fleeing. There’s no difference between a Saudi murder, a Russian murder or a North Korean murder; no ruling power that kills over criticism deserves either our friendship or respect.