If Khashoggi’s last op-ed was a call for breathing space for his fellow Arabs, his final, desperate words before he was killed represent the devastating cruelty with which lives and dreams have been asphyxiated by repression and state-sanctioned violence with impunity.
Four years ago, “I can’t breathe” were the same last words that Eric Garner uttered when he was placed in a choke hold by New York Police and died. #ICantBreathe soon became a part of the #BlackLivesMatter rallying cry against American racism and police brutality. Last month, after news broke about Khashoggi’s last moments, #ICantBreathe became a hashtag in Arabic Twitter, with users sharing stories about living under the weight of dictatorships and censorship in the Middle East.
In many ways, Garner could not have been more different than Khashoggi. Garner was a 43-year-old black man who worked for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Khashoggi was a Saudi royal insider, with access and privileges in the kingdom. Even in exile, Khashoggi moved in elite networks of Ivy League academics, think tankers and media personalities. Garner was a victim of excessive police force, while Khashoggi was the target of an international assassination plot, likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The horror in how both men met their cruel fate lies in part due to the banality of the errands they were carrying out: Garner was just selling loose cigarettes on the corner. Khashoggi went to the consulate for what he imagined would be a quick appointment to pick up marriage papers.
In both cases despair set in after watching their killers face few consequences, despite video evidence in Garner’s case — or with Khashoggi, CIA assessments determining the culpability of the Saudi crown prince. In both cases, the men sometimes have been blamed for their own deaths at the hands of people in power: Why did Garner resist the police and not comply? Why did Jamal Khashoggi go into the consulate of a country that he knew wanted to silence him?
After Khashoggi’s murder, much analysis and many opinion takes have focused on the high-level geopolitics in the Middle East, the havoc wreaked by wealthy, powerful princes or the rancor over the United States’ embrace of Saudi Arabia.
But we cannot lose sight of the man. In his last year of life, Jamal Khashoggi wanted to make the lives of ordinary people better. We must not forget Khashoggi’s true message in his work: Arab lives matter.
That Time magazine honored him as one of the “Guardians of Truth” for its Person of the Year issue is an amazing testament to Jamal Khashoggi’s work and mission. But for every Jamal Khashoggi, there are hundreds more people in the Arab world whose lives have been destroyed, whose names we will likely never know. Will we continue to accept murder, torture and disappearances of innocent people as the cost of doing business with governments such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates? Will we tolerate our own leaders helping repressive and corrupt governments to cover up the murders of journalists and the jailings of female activists? Should human lives really be weighed against the cost of arms sales or oil barrels?
Will policymakers, institutions and the media continue to ignore the voices and perspectives of Arab people when shaping their views and policies on the region? Or will we lift them up and put them at the center of their own stories?
Jamal Khashoggi met the cruelest of fates on Oct. 2. But his mission — to break the stranglehold of repression in Arab societies — will live on. Black, brown and Arab lives all matter.