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Lives that Matter?

What would it take for everyone’s life to matter as much as Jamal Khashoggi’s?

I ask this question over at the edge of the news, looking for a doorway into the human conscience.

Consider:

“The U.S. sold a total of $55.6 billion of weapons worldwide in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — up 33 percent from the previous fiscal year, and a near record. In 2017, the U.S. cleared some $18 billion in new Saudi arms deals.”

This is from CBS News Moneywatch two weeks ago. No big deal, just a look at the U.S. weapons biz, which has been thrust into the national spotlight recently.

“Mr. Trump,” the story continues, “has dismissed the idea of suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia to punish its crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, for any involvement in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. ‘I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States,’ Mr. Trump said this week. . . .”

And under the subhead “Bombs away,” the article informs us: “The current White House has shifted the type of weapons exports the U.S. favors. Prior to this year, aircraft was the largest component of U.S. arms sales, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. Under the first year of the Trump administration, sales of bombs and missiles dominated.”

This is a story about the infrastructure of killing and an economic system that, apparently, depends on doing so on a mass scale globally, which of course is known as waging war. War at a personal, specific level is always horrifying — as shocking and grotesquely wrong as Khashoggi’s murder. Why is it, then, that when you multiply these murders by a hundred or a thousand or a million, they become so much easier to talk about and write about and justify — with the focus on strategy, politics, economics and jobs — than is the murder of one man? Why is there not one word in this Moneywatch story as heart-stopping as “bone saw”?

I ask this in no way to belittle the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but rather to belittle . . . no, to undo, to rip apart . . . what we call news. If it weren’t for news that normalizes and softens war, that turns it — here in the 21st century — into a spectator sport, the military industrialists and their political supplicants could not sell it to the public with such ease.

The United States had pretty much evolved beyond war by 1975, when its military pulled out of Vietnam. There followed a decade and a half of “Vietnam syndrome” — public disgust and distaste for mass murder, environmental devastation and spiritual suicide, of the sort we’d just been inflicting on Vietnam and on ourselves.

But because of the political and economic influence of the military industrial complex, “Vietnam syndrome” was unacceptable. The U.S. fought proxy wars for a decade and a half, particularly in Nicaragua (go, Contras!) and ended the draft (except for the poverty draft), which disentangled most Americans from a personal stake in future wars. Then — with the Cold War suddenly, unexpectedly over — war’s public relations unit had to find a new, more perfect enemy. It settled on our former ally, Saddam Hussein.

When the six-week-long Gulf War ended in February 1991, George H.W. Bush declared: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” And indeed, that first Gulf War set the standard for the wars of the 21st century. They are, to the extent possible, reported as strategic spectacles waged from on high. Bombs away! No blood, no mess, no racism — just classified strategic objectives and a mission (never articulated) to fulfill.

And beyond America’s own wars, we have the Saudis and their allies and the war they are waging in Yemen, with our weapons, assistance and backing:

“The military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 — actions that may amount to war crimes, United Nations investigators said in a report issued Tuesday.”

So the New York Times reported in August, in advance of a U.N. report on the war.

“The main cause of civilian casualties in the war,” the story continues, “. . . has been airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. It estimates that there have been 18,000 such strikes in little more than three years, inflicting a level of damage on civilians that ‘certainly contributed to Yemen’s dire economic and humanitarian situation.’

“The report, to be delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council next month, comes not long after a Saudi-coalition strike this month killed 40 children on a school bus.”

Eventually the story tosses in this little moral grenade:

“A report released by Human Rights Watch last week warned Britain, France and the United States that they risked complicity in unlawful attacks in Yemen by continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia.”

But none of this has the shock value of the torture and murder of a man at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, not even the murder of 40 children on a school bus. That public outrage over Khashoggi’s killing won’t go away — that it is disrupting the U.S.-Saudi alliance and possibly even threatening future arms sales — is absolutely appropriate. But I can’t help feeling eaten alive by the question it raises.

Why do only some lives matter?

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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