Amid the shockwaves of condemnation that followed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a number of conservatives have been upset not at the savagery inflicted on the expatriate Saudi dissident and journalist, but at the widespread outrage over his grisly death. Some have openly disparaged Khashoggi, deriding him as an Islamist who supported the Muslim Brotherhood and palled around with Osama bin Laden. Others have mocked his calls for liberal reform as “a cover” for his “real work” of praising terrorists and attacking Israel.
Their claims are outdated and/or exaggerated. But even if they had merit, why assault the reputation of someone who did nothing to deserve such a horrifying death? Why seek to dampen the infamy of the Saudis’ repugnant crime?
Those belittling Khashoggi’s terrible fate aren’t indifferent to human rights. But they have overriding concerns. Their aspersions “are aimed in part at protecting [President] Trump as he works to preserve the US-Saudi relationship and avoid confronting the Saudis on human rights,” reported The Washington Post last week. Some on the pro-Israel right are motivated by strategic issues in the Middle East. Their focus, explains Ron Kampeas in a story for the JTA wire service, is on “cultivating Saudi cooperation in the diplomatic fight against Iran, keeping the Saudis on board the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and maintaining the kingdom as a bulwark against violent forms of radical Islam.”
And still others want to make sure nothing undermines the unfolding détente between Israel and Saudi Arabia. When I wrote about Khashoggi in a recent column, one correspondent — someone deeply involved with human rights in other contexts — snapped: “Arab regimes kill people every day. Why the focus on this guy?” His answer: “Because the Saudi-Israeli alliance upsets the left.”
Double standards are part of the human condition. All of us are prone to invoking principles in some cases that we find it convenient to ignore in others. And nobody can care equally about every one of the world’s enormities and terrors. But inconsistency is one thing. Turning your back on human suffering and cruelty because it doesn’t advance your cause is something different — and deplorable.
This happens on both left and right, and it isn’t a new phenomenon.
In 1979, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees fled for their lives in rickety boats, desperate to escape the takeover of their homeland by communist North Vietnam. Folk singer Joan Baez had been a stalwart of the antiwar movement, but she was moved by the human-rights nightmare unfolding on the open sea. She bought newspaper advertisements condemning Hanoi’s “brutal disregard of human rights,” and invited hundreds of her former antiwar allies to sign their names.
But most of them said no, unwilling to do anything that might cast a shadow on North Vietnam’s victory. One who refused to defend the frightened refugees was Jane Fonda, who rebuked Baez for even raising the issue. “Such rhetoric only aligns you with the most narrow and negative elements in our country who continue to believe that communism is worse than death,” she wrote in a letter. “I worry about the effects of what you are doing.”
It is always more tempting to focus a spotlight on abominations committed by the “other” side, while downplaying those that make your own side look worse. Activists who for years raised their voices against the brutalities of right-wing juntas in Argentina and Chile consistently refused to condemn the brutalities of the left-wing dictatorship in Cuba. The death of Palestinian youths at the hands of the Israeli military evokes anguished rage from people who remain unperturbed when Palestinian youths die at the hands of Hamas. Examples, unfortunately, are all too common.
But the bottom line is the same: If you condemn a gruesome and shocking outrage only when doing so helps advance your larger political agenda, you aren’t actually against gruesome and shocking outrages. You’re against them only when it suits your purpose.
Those joining the posthumous pile-on against Khashoggi may think they are gaining some small tactical advantage. What they are giving up in exchange is their moral credibility.