He wasn’t wrong when he said the United States needs to cultivate allies and do business with countries that don’t live up to our standards for human rights and basic liberties.
But he was terribly wrong to equate the deaths of many journalists worldwide — at the hands of terrorists, local thugs and even murky government operatives — with what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. The difference goes to the heart of who we are as a people.
The CIA says it has found convincing evidence the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s death. Several senators on both sides of the political aisle left a closed-door briefing this week convinced of this, as well, vowing to make the Saudis pay.
President Trump, however, has said he will do nothing, and Stewart told CNN’s Brianna Keilar, “Journalists disappear all over … . Twenty journalists have been killed in Mexico. You don’t think it happens in Turkey and China? Of course it does. And yet we have to have a relationship with these individuals or with these countries.”
I spent much of Wednesday, an admittedly busy day in Washington, trying to get a clarification from Stewart. Late in the afternoon his office sent me this statement:
“We cannot brush aside the murder of any journalist and I have always said that those who are responsible for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi should be held responsible,” it said. “As the leader of the free world, we have to accomplish two goals; defend human rights while also attempting to maintain important relationships with key allies that we hope will help us bring stability to critical parts of the world. We should always strive to do both.”
Frankly, that’s much better. It at least leaves open the possibility of some sort of punishment for the crown prince, the head of a complicated nation virtually crawling with princes.
But it doesn’t get to the heart of why the United States has to treat this crime as something extraordinarily unacceptable.
The United States weakens its strength abroad if it tacitly accepts a blatant violation of one of it own bedrock principles of liberty — even for the sake of a strategic alliance. That is especially true if a head of state deliberately orders the offense.
It’s wrong because, as any police officer will tell you, ignoring a crime inevitably leads to more of it, and we already have too many journalists dying because they just want to uncover the truth about power.
For the record, The Committee to Protect Journalists has cataloged 48 journalist deaths worldwide so far in 2018. Journalists die each year in the pursuit of truth without causing international incidents. And yet each of their deaths diminishes the cause of liberty and human rights in the world. Each allows official corruption or criminal power to continue unchecked abuses. That is why it becomes so egregious when evidence links such a crime to a head of state.
But it also is important because President Trump has called the media an enemy of the people.
History has repeatedly shown that most often it is the state, or rather the ambitious state, that is the true enemy of the people. I believe that’s one reason the Founding Fathers devised a constitutional system that limits the expansion of state power and the ability of any one person to wield that power.
And so the U.S. cannot afford to send the message that quashing dissent and criticism through murder is OK.
Years ago, I sat in a room at the State Department in Washington with a few other opinion writers. Top officials, including Gen. Colin Powell, who then was secretary of state, were briefing us not long after 9/11. Some of us kept pressing them on why the United States seemed to overlook human rights abuses among its allies, especially Saudi Arabia.
The answer we got was simple. The United States has to deal with the world as it finds it, not wait to form alliances until other nations conform to our ideals.
Stewart is right. The U.S. should strive to both maintain relationships and defend human rights. That’s often a difficult tightrope. But downplaying horrendous high-level crimes by our friends sends a disturbing, and hopefully incorrect, message about what we value most.