Skip to content

Mixing it – memories, moral equivalence and the fate of Jamal Khashoggi

October 14, 2018

Vietnam War Museum, Saigon

If stories about the Turkish authorities having recordings made within the Saudi Consulate of the interrogation and murder of Jamal Khashoggi turn out to be correct, then the finger of blame points ever more strongly towards Saudi Arabia.

The question is, what now?

The obvious but sad reality is that what is done cannot be undone. No reparations, apologies, prosecutions or ostracism will bring JamaI back. Like many others, I am still replaying in my imagination the horror of what appears to have been done to Jamal. Will his death trigger sanctions against the perpetrators? Possibly – if not by nations, then most likely by investors who don’t want their brands besmirched by association with a regime that is capable of carrying out such vicious acts.

Are we, who look on in outrage, complicit in the death of Khashoggi? One can argue that as individuals, we are both innocent and guilty. Only a shadowy few had a hand in the events in Istanbul. Yet, as users of products that come from under the parched earth of Saudi Arabia, we contribute to the wealth of a regime that is determined to do what it takes to hold on to what it has.

In a wider sense, we breathe the air that saints and sinners have breathed before us. We drink the water that has passed through martyrs and tyrants. We embody the sins of our forefathers.

Some religions, though, provide us with a useful article of faith which serves as a doctrinal device for drawing a line across our past. We were born innocent, we sin, we confess, we have faith, we are forgiven. We have no responsibility for the sins of those around us, let alone of past generations.

But we can’t escape so easily. The past is not another country. It’s with us today, in our memories, our culture and our DNA. It’s also in evidence of achievements and transgressions that can’t be washed away, especially in this age of the internet.

The past speaks loudly in The Vietnam War, a magnificent PBS documentary series about the Vietnam war by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It’s been around since 2017, but I’ve only just watched the last episodes. It took me a while because it was so painful to watch. Vietnam was my time, so it wasn’t just history. It reconnected me to the person I was – not a participant, but an onlooker in a third country. Not a protester, just a schoolboy, then a student, whose everyday reality was soaked in the splashback of Vietnam.

That war was just one of many causes that young people of my age were worked up about. Yet it was always there, a backdrop, an underlying narrative, even when we became desensitised to the sound and fury of the first televised conflict.

Watching the footage again now, the faces of the young people, some numbed by combat, others consumed by anger, yet more sullenly indifferent, was like looking at my younger self in a mirror. Listening to the music of the time, suffused with energy, outrage and sadness, brought back to me more than the memory of a war. I felt an echo of the love, despair, hope, ambition and disappointment that swirled through my younger self.

Towards the end of the last episode, one of the American veterans described his first visit to the newly-erected Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC. As he stood before the thousands of names inscribed on the black stone, a dam of emotion, long suppressed, broke. He sank to his knees and sobbed.

I too welled up as I watched his testimony, and that of others on all sides of the conflict.

A few years ago I visited Vietnam for the first time. I saw museums, war memorials, remnants of war. I also watched the young Vietnamese going about their lives, innocent of conflict yet touched by it.

So it was after the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War. All touched the innocent and the guilty. No doubt survivors of the first Gulf War will remember the turkey shoot at Mutlaq Ridge, people crushed like ants under the berms as the tanks rolled over them, children dying from a lack of medicine. Was that war different from Vietnam, Korea, WW2 and WW1? In scale and provenance perhaps, but the emotions of the participants, the victims and the bystanders who look back today will be much the same.

Also the same is how politicians, academics and polemicists cherry-pick from the past to shift perception of the present.

Which brings me back to Khashoggi. There are those who will say “how can you criticise the Saudis when your country bombed, killed and maimed millions in Vietnam, Iraq and Kuwait, and lied about what you did?” And there are others who say “horrific as Khashoggi’s murder may be, how much more horrific are the atrocities being visited upon the people of Yemen?”

This is where politics steps in, and distracts attention from the main subject, which is the alleged extrajudicial killing of a man who did nothing by generally-accepted moral standards to deserve his fate.

Moral equivalence, or whataboutism, is an easy game to play. You, as someone from, say, West Africa, might blame my country for the slave trade. I might ask you whether or not your ancestors were also complicit, driving their own people into the hands of the slave traders for material gain. And so on.

Better surely not to indulge in such games, and to deal with each injustice in turn, and on its own merits. If we start comparing one injustice with another, we eventually come to the point at which we declare that everybody is guilty, and therefore nobody is guilty, a theme explored by Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express.

Once upon a time a Saudi prince for whom I worked for a short while stopped me in my tracks as I was engaged in an argument in which I compared one situation with another. “Stop”, he said, “you are mixing it!”. It’s a phrase I heard more than once in the Kingdom.

The Saudis would surely understand when I say that we should stop mixing it now. Rather than use patterns of previous or concurrent behaviour to identify the perpetrators, we should use the evidence at hand. Only if that evidence points clearly at the perpetrators should we add to the pattern. And we should remember that patterns based on opinion are inherently unreliable, and often constructed to argue a point. Patterns of fact, to the extent that they can be proven, are what count. Perhaps we have reached that point, in which case we shall soon find out whether values end up trumping political expediency.

Whatever the outcome, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, if proven, will soon become part of the past that informs the present, and perhaps quite profoundly. And if Khashoggi turns out to have been the victim of a state-sponsored assassination, we should be very careful about the consequences of any action taken for Saudi Arabia’s 20 million citizens, whose future well-being may hang in the balance.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: