So, I’ve been hammering at a social media user about why I think the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge and acceptance of the US government, who is helping in the cover-up, is so damn important. And during this hammering, what I’ve found is that people are compartmentalizing this as a “journalist” thing. Oh no, that’s not it. Not at all.
First, yes, this is getting more press than it might otherwise because Khashoggi was a journalist. Consider this, hundreds of journalist are killed by state-sponsored forces every year. When we read press accounts of these murders, they are most often single-column reports. The murdered journalists’ names are not mentioned until the Committee to Protect Journalists issues their year-end list. We generally ignore the murder of journalists. Because Khashoggi write for the Washington Post we see his name in the news.
Second, Khashoggi was a U.S. based journalist, living and writing here as a permanent resident. In everyday talk, he had a green card, which means that he went through a process to get it. He is a legal, documented immigrant. All permanent residents are protected by the United States government as though they are citizens. While permanent residents cannot vote, as per Border Control & Immigration, they are “protected by all laws of the United States, your state of residence and local jurisdictions.” If Khashoggi was not a permanent resident, there would not be the press that there is. (Again, see the CPJ list for names you don’t know).
Third, Khashoggi was here as a permanent resident because he felt that he could not live safely in Saudi Arabia, the land of his birth. The nature of his journalism — work that uncovered Saudi corruption — made him an “enemy of the state,” the state being the Saudi royal family. As Khashoggi’s work put him in opposition to the state and made him the target of death threats and persecution, he was a dissident.
These three distinctions are very, very important, as they explain why Khashoggi was assassinated by the Saudis. States do not kill journalists just because they are journalists (really, who is gonna whack David Brooks?), but they do kill dissidents because they are dissidents. This is a historical fact. So, let’s start there:
№1 important thing: Khashoggi was a dissident. In his reporting and his columns, Khashoggi spoke out against the Saudi royal family and for that he was killed. If he didn’t have access to international press, but was still considered a dissident, he would have been either killed or imprisoned (PressTV has a very good article on Saudi’s treatment of dissidents). If he kept his mouth shut or wrote on food & tourism, he would be alive.
№2 important thing: Khashoggi was a dissident living under the protection of the United States government. He is/was not the only person who fled to the US for safety. The U.S. is home to other Saudi dissidents. There are thousands of Chinese dissidents living in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. We provide safe haven for dissidents from Turkey, Ethiopia, Russia, the former Soviet -stans, and other authoritarian regimes living here. Famously, the United States has played host to Cuban, Soviet, and Eastern Bloc dissidents, as well as dissidents from Southeast Asia and Central America. We used to be proud of harboring dissidents, even as we murdered our own.
№3 important thing: Khashoggi was a journalist. At their best, journalists are our ambassadors of the truth. They build bridges between speculation and reality. People understand the world though our experiences and, when that fails us, through the experiences of others, this is where journalists and artists come in. Honest journalists are vital to our understanding of the world, especially when our government engages in gaslighting and serial lying. Because good journalists challenge state propaganda, someone like Trump, Putin, Xi, Dutarte, Erdogan, or Mohammad bin Salman think that journalists are “enemies of the people,” the “people” being the despotic and corrupt state.
If you are having a difficult time wrapping your head around these words, try this: The most famous dissident in the world is the Dalai Lama. For decades he has lived in exile, under the protection of other nations. If he returned to his homeland, Chinese-occupied Tibet, he would be imprisoned, and, in earlier times, murdered. While not a journalist, the Dalia Lama has certainly advertised the cruelty and corruption of Chinese occupation. To the Chinese he is a messenger of bad-tidings and an “enemy of the people.”
So, let’s say that the Dalai Lama is living in the US under the state’s protection. Let’s say that using the US as a safe base, the Dalai Lama turns his criticism up to 10, something that really pisses President Xi off. Let’s say that Xi convinces the Dalia Lama to visit the Chinese consulate in India, to discuss Tibet’s independence. Let’s say that the Dalai Lama walks through the consulate doors and is literally greeted with a chain saw, is tortured, and chopped up in little pieces, the Indians recording all this on their hi-fi for perhaps future vinyl release.
Let’s say that when the President of the United States is confronted about it he say, “That’s not good. Was Mr. Lama a US citizen? No, okay. Well, I don’t know what happened to Dolly, but whatever, even if it is bad, that’s between China and Dolly. Listen, Mr. Xi is a good friend, one of my best friends, the best. He promised to spend an awful lot of money in the United States, more money than has ever been spent in the history of this country, people tell me probably the world. Its $400 billion. B-illion. That’s a lot of money. I don’t like what I heard happen to Dolly, but we don’t know, we aren’t involved. That can’t stop us from this deal with China. I won’t have it.”
Now, would you be saying, “Oh well, I understand you are upset. You spiritual leaders have to stick together”? Or do you get that Khashoggi was #1 a dissident, #2 under US protection, and #3 a journalist.
The reason for this Dalai Lama exercise is two-fold. You know who the Dalai Lama is and his status as a dissident. You know that he has been threatened by the Chinese government. If he was “just” a Buddhist leader, like, say, Choje Akong Rinpoche, murdered by Chinese agents, you wouldn’t blink because chances are you wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
The other reason I use the Dalai Lama is that while he is not a journalist, he is a messenger, an outspoken public citizen and, in some ways, plays a similar role as Khashoggi did in telling the world the truth about what was going down in his homeland.
If the U.S abetted and facilitated the cover-up of the Dalai Lama’s murder, you’d be very concerned. You would say, “Hmmmm this is not just the Dalai Lama. Everyone who speaks up against the Chinese is a target, even those under US protection.” And, when you heard the president say that a $$$ deal is more important than the life of a dissident, you’d start shifting in your seat. If you were a dissident yourself, your anus would clench so hard that you’ve feel the cramps in your throat.
And, you damn well should suffer anal cramps: The President of the United States just set the price on the murder of dissidents. “Oil rich prince of an authoritarian hellhole? Got a problem with those pesky truth tellers and freedom fighters? Can’t get at them because they are under U.S. protections? No matter. Cough up the cash and once they step foot out of the U.S., fire up that bone saw and we will help you clean up the mess. While we aren’t the world’s policeman, we are international fixers, and we are open for business.”
Oh, and don’t think that you, American-born stirrer of shit, are protected. Take immigration: Trump started with a Muslim ban on foreigners, proceeded to zero tolerance, family separation, and concentration camps on the border. The next step was rounding up immigrant spouses of American citizens and bumping immigrants from the armed forces. Then came the stripping of citizenship of naturalized American citizens, people who should unquestionably have the same rights as natural born citizens. And, right now, the government is looking into the birth certificates of naturally born citizens of a certain skin color or ethnicity, and are using this search to question their citizenship. Wait there’s more! Naturally born citizens of a certain skin color or ethnicity are being detained at airports and border crossing, denied entry back into the United States although they have all the documentation to allow them the right to come back home. Know this and tell me that anyone who dares speaks up against Trump or his allies is safe.
This is why the Khashoggi case is so important. This isn’t “just” a journalist killed by despots. This isn’t “just” a dissident murdered by his state. This is far more than that. It is nothing less than a radical shift in the way the United States officially deals with foreign dissidents. It is intimately connected to the way Trump refused to recognize political asylum as something that exists. It dovetails with Trump’s attack on “enemies of the people,” i.e., media critical of Trump, not Fox News or his press stenographers.
I am not saying that we are in the midst of a round-up of troublemakers or that I fear Mr. Wilson camping outside my door. What I am trying to hammer into your head is that we cannot compartmentalize what happened to Jamal Khashoggi or the United State’s reaction. If we do, we are inviting killers into our house.
This essay originally appeared in the October 19th issue of Soriano’s Comment №29. Free Subscriptions available here.