There are certain acts considered so shocking, so beyond the pale on the world stage, that they unite people across the political spectrum in condemnation. The murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi crown prince was one such act.
As absurd as it seemed to critics of the Saudi regime — who had long pointed to its medieval treatment of women, gay people, and dissenters, and assailed its genocidal war in Yemen — the Khashoggi killing appears to have genuinely hit a nerve among the foreign policy establishment of both DC and the wider world. The revulsion was swift and bipartisan.
Aghast, media companies like the New York Times and various tycoons quickly distanced themselves from the country out of shame. Five lobbying firms dropped it as a client. Loyal Saudi allies in Congress who typically covered for its government’s every depravity suddenly had an attack of conscience, with Lindsey Graham promising “there would be hell to pay.” The killing had “unmasked [the crown prince] as a reckless, dangerous, thuggish autocrat,” charged one of the luminaries of the amoral foreign policy blob, with even the war criminal Elliott Abrams calling it a “a great crime and a great mistake.” The kingdom’s media allies received unflinching scorn and derision in the mainstream press. The incident dominated the headlines for weeks, inspiring unsparing criticism from Khashoggi’s friends in the media.
Arguably none were more emphatic than the Washington Post, Khashoggi’s employer and previously a reliable carrier of pro-Saudi messaging. Its publisher and CEO called the killing an “atrocity” and vowed to focus on the story “until meaningful action is taken,” while its editorial page editor deemed it “a monstrous and unfathomable act” and asked Americans on the Saudi payroll: “Will you work for a murderer?” The paper printed a full-page ad with Khashoggi’s image declaring “the principles of free expression endure,” and published a torrent of editorials lamenting his killing, arguing that “Saudi Arabia and its regime should be treated as outlaws by all who value human rights and free expression,” urging possible sanctions over its “vicious and reckless” murder of a journalist and calling for “a thorough reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations.”
Meanwhile, Trump received withering criticism from the press for what the Post alleged amounted to “conspiring with Saudi officials to cover up the murder of a distinguished journalist.” His support for the Saudi government in the wake of the killing signaled a loss of US “moral leadership,” wrote the Boston Globe, adding that “to attack [members of the press] is to attack a central pillar of democracy.” Another columnist placed it in the context of “the collapse of the liberal world order,” Trump’s “incitements against journalists,” and his “cringe-worthy embrace of autocrats and tyrants.” Perhaps most significantly, the episode inspired an unprecedented public debate about the United States’ friendly relationship with the country’s homicidal government, and extraordinary, ongoing efforts in Congress to end US support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
But will any similar furor follow Israel’s recent actions in Gaza?
According to a report released yesterday by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was tasked with investigating alleged violations of human rights during the Palestinian protests from March to December of last year, Israeli forces killed two journalists and wounded thirty-nine more with “unlawful” live rounds during this time span. Both of the murdered reporters were wearing blue helmets and blue bulletproof vests that were, the report states, “very clearly” marked “Press.” So were two of the other, surviving journalists named in the report, one of whom was taking a break and standing around when he was shot.
“The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such,” it concludes.
Of course, there are other appalling things that Israeli soldiers did, including killing people in wheelchairs and crutches, three clearly marked paramedics, and thirty-five children, as well as maiming an eleven-year-old boy who was playing football. Unfortunately, we also know from the case of Saudi Arabia that such murder of children and other civilians is not enough to arouse the fury of the foreign policy establishment.
But for better or worse, politicians, executives, and the press have made abundantly clear that what they do consider a red line is the concerted, intentional murder of a reporter. So will Israel’s killing of two clearly marked journalists receive the same disgust as Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi? From the looks of things so far, no.
While the report and its findings have been covered by a variety of mainstream news outlets, these murders don’t seem to have shaken the world’s pundits in the same way. The Post has covered the report’s findings, but its editors did not swiftly publish an op-ed connecting them to the Israeli government’s increasing hostility to dissent and the media, as they did with Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s suspected murder.
Perhaps this is because Khashoggi’s death was particularly gruesome and shocking. He was, after all, killed inside an embassy, with his corpse sliced up and dissolved in acid. But this shouldn’t matter; the pundits who erupted in outrage over Khashoggi’s murder made clear they weren’t just appalled at how he was killed, but that he was killed at all. Besides, what kind of standard is that: choking a journalist to death in an embassy is an attack on “a central pillar of democracy,” but shooting one from hundreds of meters away is fine?
Perhaps the next few days and weeks will, after all, see an outcry to match the sustained repugnance that followed the Khashoggi killing. But don’t count it. The Israeli government has long been allowed to get away with the kinds of things that would (and do) trigger declarations of war if committed by others: from aggressively spying on the US government to meddling in elections and domestic politics more broadly. Israeli soldiers have killed and maimed multiple US citizens over the years, and the government and establishment media’s response has been the sound of crickets; compare that with the fury just yesterday over Trump absolving Kim Jong-Un for the death of Otto Warmbier, who is far from certain to have actually been physically mistreated in North Korean custody at all.
Under Trump, the political establishment has made clear they’ll no longer tolerate US policymakers’ coddling of violent governments; that they see “moral leadership” as an uncompromisable element of US foreign policy. That’s good. But this is meaningless if they can’t muster the same outrage when it comes to one of the Beltway’s oldest sacred cows. Perhaps Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, speaking of Saudi Arabia, put it best four months ago: “Could its supposed friendship be worth shrugging off the ensnaring and killing of a critic whose only offense was to tell the truth?
Is that the country we want to be?”