Khashoggi, Tear Gas, and the Failure of Morality

December 5, 2018

 In the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed the Trump administration’s continued ignorance to, sponsoring of, or active participation in human rights abuses. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by what was essentially a Saudi death squad, with the approval of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman. The administration’s subsequent apathy to this violent attack on a dissident voice echoed Trump’s almost daily attacks on press freedom. The administration’s continued support of Bin-Salman and alliance with Saudi Arabia sends a striking message to the rest of the world while nearly endorsing state-sponsored violence against a free, critical press in countries prone to such attacks. Meanwhile, at home, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents (I.C.E.) patrolling the American border recently fired rubber bullets and dozens of tear gas canisters, from behind the U.S.-Mexico border, upon Central and Southern American refugees legally seeking asylum at our southern border. Both incidents represent a separate yet equally important and certainly interconnected indictment of the current administration. This forces us to fundamentally question the dangers of governing without a tether to our supposed ideals and commitments to the protection of human rights on a global scale.

 

Given the Trump administration’s treatment of journalists and commentary regarding domestic attacks on members of the news media, its apathy towards the murder of Jamal Khashoggi might come at little surprise. While I am not accusing the administration of or having any interest in harming American journalists, the president’s attacks, verbal and through Twitter, on who he describes as “enemies of the people” already set a dangerous precedent for autocratic regimes to follow. When, then, our autocratic allies murder a journalist, employed by the Washington Post, and the president of the United States responds with non-committal disapproval, we don’t just look immoral. We don’t just seem to betray our values. We appear weak.

 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal proposed the Trump administration’s remarkable commitment to that very same weakness. To Secretary Pompeo: Saudi Arabia needs us far more than we need them. His op-ed, which centered around Saudi Arabia’s role as a bulwark in the Middle East against Iranian aggression, failed at all levels to properly evaluate U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations. At the end of his article, Pompeo insists that we not let idealism blind us from potentially beneficial relationships with autocrats who hold and promote values like our own. Earlier in the article, Pompeo calls Bin-Salman a reformist, citing his relaxation of restrictions of women’s rights through granting them the freedom to drive. Did Secretary Pompeo, following this point, mention the several women’s rights activists jailed following the lifting of the driving restriction? Of course not. President Trump’s willingness to bend the knee to Crown Prince Bin-Salman represents neither pragmatism nor correct foreign policy. His unwillingness to punish Saudi Arabia, a partner that, once again, needs us far more than we need them, actively and effectively sends a clear message to the rest of the world: the U.S. has and will continue to vacate any ambition to be the standard bearer for global human rights. The attack on asylum seekers along the southern border doubles down on that attitude and continues to set the country on a dangerous path.

 

Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, following the attack on asylum seekers at our southern border, made an important point on Twitter: “Asking to be considered a refugee & applying for status isn’t a crime.” The fact of the matter is that these asylum seekers aren’t rushing our border to attack ICE agents or to steal jobs or to hurt women and children, as some may have you believe. No, these human beings are fleeing violence and persecution, some from countries that we have previously established repressive autocrats in ourselves. We have the capabilities and established procedures for handling an influx of asylum seekers. Through that procedure, some of these people will be accepted into our country, and some will be sent home to theirs. That process itself could use re-evaluation, but turning our weapons on these asylum seekers, turning rubber bullets and tear gas on folks searching for a better life after bravely traveling thousands of miles to escape violence, shouldn’t be compatible with our conception of morality.

 

I feel like I can say much more on the attack at our southern border, given the international law implications, the domestic immigration law implications, and the comparisons that can be drawn between this extreme form of nationalism and other extreme forms of nationalism we have seen during the 20th century. But, at the end of the day, we have no business firing tear gas on children because it’s just plain wrong. These people were incapable of harming border patrol officers – they were seeking a new home free from persecution and violence. Should that not be our national mission? To be a beacon on a hill for all others, to be a home for the “wretched refuge on your teeming shore”? Is that not essential to who we are? Previously, especially following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, quota systems in the early twentieth century, and anti-immigration rhetoric that has targeted people of color, we have not been that welcoming nation. We have failed to live up to the American morality we claim. With Jamal Khashoggi and the attack on our southern border, we once again have failed. Hopefully, one day, we can succeed.

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