Fred Ryan is publisher and chief executive of The Post. He served as assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
In our fast-paced digital news cycle, attention spans are short. After tomorrow’s outrage, people won’t remember today’s — let alone last week’s. Anyone looking to duck accountability for disgraceful actions can count on the relentless stream of new controversies for help.
But no matter how severe the information overload, some actions are too heinous for the public to forget.
One year ago, Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by a hit squad dispatched on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Evidence suggests the Saudis expected to dodge justice as Jamal’s case faded from memory. Initially, they stalled by denying any knowledge of Jamal’s whereabouts. When the international community still insisted on answers, they claimed Jamal was the victim of a “rogue" killing. Reports indicate that even months after the murder, Mohammed assured the plot’s ringleader that he would restore him to the royal inner circle as soon as the furor over Jamal’s death subsided.
Mohammed should expect to wait a long time. The world’s horror over Jamal’s murder won’t simply blow over, for many reasons. Here are a few that should resonate with Americans of all political persuasions.
The first is the diabolical nature of the crime. Jamal was lured into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to get a marriage license so that he could wed his Turkish fiancee. She waited for him at the consulate’s gate, unaware that 15 trained assassins were lurking inside. One of the attackers was armed with a bone saw. There was no pretense of a fair fight — at a 15-to-1 disadvantage, Jamal had no hope of self-defense. These macabre and infuriating details are seared into the public’s memory.
Second, people won’t easily forget that the leader of a longtime U.S. ally — and the recipient of enormous amounts of U.S. aid — directed the killing of a U.S. resident working for a U.S. newspaper. This brazen aggression is part of a broader pattern of brutality on the part of Mohammed. As the 34-year-old crown prince consolidates power, he has waged a campaign to silence dissidents, held 200 business leaders prisoner inside a Ritz-Carlton, jailed and tortured female activists seeking basic freedoms, kidnapped the prime minister of a sovereign nation and fueled a devastating war in Yemen. That a U.S. ally would show such flagrant disregard for our values, expecting no consequences, speaks volumes about the way the United States is now perceived. The alarm that Americans feel about our diminished standing is unlikely to fade.
This is related to the third reason the attack on Jamal remains alive in the public’s memory: America’s response. Following the murder, the Trump administration chased potential weapons deals with the Saudis instead of mustering the courage to defend America’s values of press freedom and human rights. When the president of the United States abandons our principles because a tyrant writes a big check, Americans are angered and disheartened.
Americans are not the only people paying attention. Authoritarian regimes around the world are taking note. The impotent reaction from our government’s leaders signals to strongmen everywhere that they can terrorize their people — and mock the United States — with impunity.
Fourth, it will prove hard to forget the administration’s unexplained snub of the CIA, the United Nations and Congress. Although the CIA’s investigation concluded with high confidence that Mohammed ordered Jamal’s killing, the agency’s experts were ignored. The U.N. special rapporteur investigating the case declared that the United States is allowing itself “to be made complicit in what is, by all appearances, a miscarriage of justice” and called on the FBI to probe further. No action on the bureau’s part has been announced.
Perhaps most egregiously, the administration continues to stonewall Congress in violation of the terms of the Global Magnitsky Act. Last year, a bipartisan group of senators invoked the act, requiring the president to report to Congress on the administration’s findings about who killed Jamal. Under the law, the report was due in February. Congress is still waiting.
Americans don’t like to see important institutions and branches of our government callously brushed aside. It belittles and demoralizes the men and women who risk their lives every day to provide the intelligence that keeps our nation safe. And it offends our sensibilities as a nation of laws.
Fifth, the memory of Jamal’s killing will be long-lasting because its effects will be long-lasting. We will forever be deprived of the stories he would have written and so will remain forever ignorant of corruption he might have exposed, heroism he might have praised and insights he might have offered.
Jamal’s story cannot be forgotten. If it is, his murderers will succeed in evading justice. And Jamal Khashoggi will not be Mohammed bin Salman’s last victim.
Yet we can be comforted that, for all of these reasons, Jamal will still be on our minds next Oct. 2 — and for many years to come. And we hope that someday, when Saudi Arabia and the United States have a better class of leadership, Jamal’s case will be remembered as a turning point. It might be recorded as the moment when Saudi Arabia began to understand the consequences of its brutality, when the United States learned important lessons about standing up for its values, and when both countries rediscovered liberty, human rights and respect for the truth.
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