One writer's death should matter to us

Posted October 20, 2018 12:05 a.m. EDT

Jamal Khashoggi is just one guy, you know, and people lose their lives over their political views all the time. Surely you've heard people saying that over the past few days: Of course Saudi Arabia shouldn't have murdered a journalist who wrote for The Washington Post - if that's really what happened - but let's not allow our emotions about this to get out of hand. Be pragmatic.

"You've got one journalist - who knows?" said the Rev. Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader and eager supporter of President Donald Trump. Robertson suggested that it would be a mistake for the United States to retaliate, because "you've got $100 billion worth of arms sales... we cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East."

God knows that Pat Robertson speaks his mind, but he also often channels the thoughts of the president, and Donald Trump is nothing if not a guy who cares about the dollar value of transactions over any sort of philosophy.

So even as intelligence services are suggesting that Khashoggi died on orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump is going out of his way to protect our big arms deal with Saudi Arabia and, as Robertson urged, avoid conflict with MBS over the gory death Khashoggi suffered for advancing his view of the truth.

So why should an important strategic relationship be shaken because a single journalist entered a Saudi diplomatic compound and then perhaps got carved up with a bone saw?

We know not to expect the U.S. government of Donald Trump to treat this any differently because Khashoggi was a journalist. The president's contempt for the news media is clear. At a political rally in Montana this week, Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, the Republican congressman who body slammed a reporter last year for asking a question about health care. "Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my guy," Trump said.

A reporter's bruises and broken eyeglasses at Gianforte's hands aren't the same as Khashoggi's dismemberment upon the crown prince's order, certainly, but both make it clear that raising questions about what people in power think and do, which is the job of a journalist, can be risky, and that fact doesn't greatly worry our president. This year, 39 journalists have been attacked in the U.S., according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, and five killed. Around the world, CPJ says 43 journalists have been killed this year because of their work.

Many of those attacks have come in countries ruled by notorious dictators whom Trump has been eager to embrace: Xi Jinping of China (41 journalists jailed for their work last year), Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (80 journalists killed in the last 25 years), Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (20 journalists behind bars), Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey (73 journalists jailed last year) and, of course, Vladimir Putin of Russia (as many as 200 journalists killed since the early 1990s).

There's a philosophy behind the president's reluctance to engage despots about their attacks on the free press: He has assured other nations repeatedly that the U.S. won't try to impose its values on them. Their internal affairs, he has suggested, at the Untied Nations and elsewhere, are their own concern, not ours.

Here is why that abandonment of America's historic global leadership is dangerous: It is leaving autocrats free to shape the world in their image. America's influence in the world is waning as authoritarianism log-rolls democratic movements in one nation after another.

Freedom of speech and support for a free press aren't the only values core to the American experiment that other nations are flouting. We have stood with other Western nations on the side of the rule of law, for open markets and for freedom of choice in everyday life. As Trump retreats from America's stance that all global citizens deserve those opportunities, the world we know is diminished.

Those values, after all, support the notion of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that America's founders asserted to be humans' birthright. That vision is dimmed when governments kill with impunity, jail citizens for criticizing their leaders, evict groups based on their ethnic origin and deny people equal rights based on their gender or their sexual orientation.

It's not that America should turn its back on Saudi Arabia because it killed a journalist who was a resident of the United States. But nor can we tolerate business as usual. An assault on values we cherish, including freedom of the press, should carry real consequences.

That's actually pragmatic. For if we don't live by our historic values here and affirm that those values also will guide the way we view our partners around the globe, we will be a nation body-slammed by bullies everywhere.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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