Impossible to Look Away: Lessons from Jamal Khashoggi

Americans who don’t usually follow the complexities of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia tuned in to the details this month after the presumed murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

On MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski highlighted one reason this case has captured headlines. Because Khashoggi “…is a member of the press…the press is never going to let this go away without all the answers.”

She’s right. The press won’t let this go away. And they shouldn’t. We can’t let this case signal we’re stuck in an era of impunity.

But there’s something else brewing under the surface here. Something Dan Drezner pointed out earlier this week:

“The foreign policy community in the United States could forgive a lot from the Saudis, because the other alternatives for allies in the Persian Gulf region seemed worse. Yes, the war in Yemen has been a humanitarian disaster, but it is also a civil war on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, so its intervention was not entirely surprising. This meant that U.S. elites were willing to look the other way even as the Saudis screwed up.

It is impossible to look away from Khashoggi’s disappearance. He was a permanent U.S. resident and a Washington Post columnist, and therefore had a higher profile than other Saudi dissidents.”

It is impossible to look away.

But why could we look away from the humanitarian disaster in Yemen?

It’s clear why the foreign policy community made allowances where they shouldn’t have for Saudi Arabia. But why haven’t average Americans protested the deaths in Yemen in the same way we’re responding to Khashoggi?

I saw first-hand the difficulty of focusing American attention on persistent human rights violations when I worked with the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan during the Bush administration.

At the time, years had passed since the beginning of the genocide in Darfur. After so much tragedy, it was difficult to galvanize attention on a long-term, ongoing crisis.

But when it comes to a case like Khashoggi, it’s hard to look away from the death of a single person, especially when his friends and colleagues speak out on his behalf.

Today, we are better positioned than ever before to personally connect with people suffering around the world and mobilize against human rights violations. Smart phones and social media platforms give us the ability to hear directly from those who are in crisis. That doesn’t mean that social media is the solution — sometimes, it’s a medium to incite violence. But it can be a force for good, giving us the capacity to act.

Yet it feels like we are squandering this power. We’re stuck in a ping-pong game of outrage, fixating on one thing briefly before moving on to the next crisis.

Sometimes it seems we wake up in the morning, waiting for the next prompt to collectively shake our heads and say to each other in our individual echo chambers, “Can you believe…?”

Even as we voice our outrage, our collective short attention span makes us less effective as a citizenry fighting for human rights.

This would matter less if it didn’t coincide with the influence of the United States presidency decreasing on the global stage.

After all, the bully pulpit becomes less of a mega phone to promote human rights when the President uses it to call a woman “horseface.” Or to degrade NFL players trying to use their influence to help end injustice. Or fill in the blank with the example that irks you most.

When I worked on Sudan policy, my boss was the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan, Richard Williamson, who passed away a few years ago.

Williamson saw the rise of realpolitik coming almost a decade ago. In 2009, he wrote an article titled, “Human rights and democracy. That’s so yesterday.”

He made the case that “the clarion call for human rights has faded. The impulse of idealism and values animating United States foreign policy seems to have flatlined. Fidelity to realism and pragmatism abroad has resulted in infidelity to our better selves…” (See: the importance of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.)

I wish I could pick up the phone and ask his advice today. I think he’d argue that citizens need to fill the leadership gap and rise to the occasion.

But we cannot focus simply on the one story of injustice that makes headlines.

If you feel like it’s difficult to personalize large-scale tragedies, start by changing your approach. Don’t wait to see what story tops the news.

Pick an area and set your focus to a specific issue or region of the world. Read the stories of those impacted by the crisis. Follow the organizations that are working to make a difference on the ground. Keep reading about the situation, even when it’s no longer making headlines. And when you can, take action by telling the U.S. government that we won’t put up with the status quo when lives are on the line.

We’re outraged about the fate of Jamal Khashoggi.

Let’s use our collective energy to make a broader impact.