Conscience vs. Commerce: Which Will Overcome?
How grievous, how noxious, how barbaric need an infraction be if it’s to risk the world of benefit that comes from a soaring international trade? This is the question—more often hypothetically than earnestly posed—to which our American business and political leaders now turn.
Jamal Khashoggi, a sometime America resident and constant Saudi dissident, was murdered in Istanbul just a few weeks ago. With his Turkish fiancée patiently, and likely still desperately awaiting his return, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in that city that Constantine built. Upon being led into the appropriate room in which his marriage credentials might be procured, Khashoggi—a Washington Post columnist whose work was often polemically tailored toward the corruption and malfeasance, both shameless and vast, of the Saudi imperial regime—encountered an unexpected coup.
It was a veritable trap into which he walked. Entering the door, he encountered at least fifteen Saudi assassins—of whom some are alleged to have been under the immediate employ of the Saudi royal guard. Should this little morsel of the tale prove true, the crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, now playfully, now literally known as the notorious MBS, would be implicated in this international crime. So far as the slow-drip of forensic evidence has revealed, the assassins were rather comprehensive in their carrying out of their deed; not a trace of Khashoggi’s body remains. Whispers have it that the stout, mustachioed journalist was denuded, flayed, and well-neigh disemboweled before being finally shorn of life. The precise details of his killing aren’t totally clear, but what’s certain is that no scrap of his flesh, no sound of his voice, no spark of his pen is to be seen nor heard nor read again.
Appropriately, this blatant and unprovoked killing of a journalist incited an international uproar. Leaders the world over hastened to condemn the brutal act, but proceeded with caution to do much more. The reason for this careful hesitation, much to the humanitarian’s outrage and the capitalist’s fleeting shame, are the financial implications of rendering extinct a Saudi Arabian relationship whose value to the U.S. beggars description. The Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, you see, has a magical way of making corporal crimes look like venial affronts. Coinage, in this way, as a tendency of mollifying outrage. It is, for he who’s disposed toward indignation, a powerful and profitable drug.
While the more humanely (rather than financially) inclined among us might complain that our political and economic leaders have been far too intoxicated by this drug of profit and choice, ours aren’t the first to have benefited from its use. In fact, it was the strength of our trade with Britain that allowed them to overlook a heinous, political, and above all unlawful killing of two innocent men. What’s more, they were killed by American hands on our very own soil.
The year was 1817, and the war famous for an earlier date had ended just two years ago. Ended, it certainly had, but neither its victor nor its loser was immediately clear. The English outpost of York, later to be re-named for the Italian city of Taranto, had been razed to the ground just as the War of 1812 was getting underway. To erect it anew, this time draped not in King George’s but in Lady Liberty’s garb, was the patriots’ far-sighted aim. And so it had been, even before our own empire was secured. Wanting ever more land and still greater clout, we Americans in the south attempted an audacious, albeit ultimately futile effort to annex that maple-leaf-fringed expanse to the north. Forever a dream of Jefferson’s and just about every other burly Founder who didn’t mind Canada’s unremitting chill, our possession of the great north never came to be. That’s not to say, though, we didn’t give it a try.
This forgotten war, so far as any part of it is indeed remembered today, brings to mind just two other moments worthy of note. The first was the retaliatory fire set on Pennsylvania Avenue near the war’s end. Understandably, the British were disinclined to let the burning of their doughty Toronto go unaddressed, even if that meant diverting troops from places where they might’ve been better used. Lex taliones, an eye for an eye, or a city for a capital in this particular case, the British sought retribution by rendering to ash our newly minted Washington D.C. Still at the time little more than a malarial swamp—out of sight and nestled along the Potomac, classically-conceived by Jefferson the aesthete but pastorally-surrounded by circumstance—our latter-day locus of politics, lobbyists, and scandals fell far short of the formidable city that it would become. Nevertheless, an opportunity to destroy an enemy city ought not to go neglected. To be so generous in a time of war would be remiss.
That was one thing those dogged redcoats were not. President Madison was absent, the mansion (not yet the White House) somewhat vacant (with the exception being the dining room, which was readied, come hell or high water, for a sizable feast), and the temptation to start a conflagration was too much to sustain. Retribution, nearly palpable to those furtive British amassing in the capital, positively lingered in the air. Also in the air was the coming of a providential rain, whose drops were to shower the night as if a deluge of a divine type. Had it not been for that storm, it’s very likely that there wouldn’t have been a house to salvage, nor paint, nor finally to name “white”.
The second moment happened rather far away and nearly outside of time. The war had come to its literal end after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and still, in distant New Orleans, the two sides fought as if each had a world to preserve or to gain. It was there in that Bayou, French by origination, Spanish by occupation, and American by force, that the last embers of our Anglo-enmity were finally put to rest. New Orleans, like Washington, was another seemingly godforsaken swamp—equally as inhospitable though perhaps only slightly less refined and urbane. It was there, however, that America would enjoy its most exciting win.
General Andrew Jackson, dour, undiplomatic, and militant to the quick, led to that city of Fat Tuesdays a regiment all his own. At least so far as his Tennessee infantry stretched, he—like those over whom he presided—looked very much the same: white, bearded, Protestant, slipshod in dress. But joining him in his last-ditch effort in the Gulf was a hodgepodge of different soldiers of every race. There were blacks—Haitian or African, enslaved or free—along with Mexicans and Spaniards and Indians. Joining them were those curious folks we today call “Cajuns”, who—with their indecipherable patois and culture—were something of a combination of all three. Orders to this polyglot platoon were given in three languages: Spanish, English, and French. It might be thought of as the first modern, tri-lingual and multi-racial force ever assembled on American soil.
Logistics and linguistics aside, Jackson led his five-thousand men against a commensurate number of Brits. At the opposition’s helm was a man of some renown, a young general by the name of Sir Edward Pakenham. If family and prestige matter at all when flesh proves (as it does in battle) to be so frail, the British would have an advantage under Pakenham’s leadership. He was, after all, brother-in-law to the Duke of Wellington, that one time victor of Waterloo and Prime Minister to the king. It’s to this duke’s military solidity in the face of the French on the pastures of Flanders that we (Americans and Europeans alike) ought to give our enduring thanks. Had he not stood his ground and kept Napoleon at bay, we’d be left without a synonym for last stands (and a title for an Abba song).
Alas, Pakenham wasn’t blessed with his brother-in-law’s penchant for success and for capping off wars in victory. He tried to move on Mobile and New Orleans and thence up through the Mississippi delta, but Jackson stopped him at every turn. So complete was Old Hickory’s victory that it can hardly be believed. At a loss of a measly seventy men, Jackson’s forces killed over two-thousand Brits. Among them was that ducal brother, Pakenham, who died with his battalion in the thirty-seventh year of his age.
Jackson was only getting started. Content with his well-deserved fame, the old general thought it high time to give infamy a try. In a war even lesser known than that of 1812, he thus embarked on what would become known as the first of three Seminole Wars.
How that war came about is less important than what it came to mean. Ultimately, it would signify the last gasp of Indian resistance in the east. All other tribes had since readied themselves to be sent with their tears along a trail that might end in Oklahoma (or might end elsewhere, or nowhere, as their plight depended on the government’s fluctuating greed). Land there, as everywhere else in the west, was bounteous. The Indians would be given those pieces which were most inauspicious.
Before he could later sign the Indian Removal Act and make their exodus a reality, Jackson sallied into Florida—an invasion into that last bastion of Native life. Frustratingly contrary to his nature, though it might’ve been, the general was under strict orders from Washington to be circumspect. He was to proceed with a fair bit of caution as he penetrated the state. He was not to engage needlessly with the assorted pockets of British or Spanish troops. Indian combatants were those against whom he was permitted to fight. But Jackson was never one to take kindly to an order or a superior’s word. He charted a war path through the Sunshine State and made a mockery of the Spaniards’ authority and their so-called sovereign “claim”.
That’s not to say that the Spanish and the Seminoles were the only victims of his wrath. No foreign (or in the Indians’ case, domestic) enemy or interloper would be excused. In the course of the war, Jackson proceeded to capture, try, and unlawfully execute two British citizens. Playing the role of executor before he’d become the nation’s executive just a few years hence, Jackson convened a court-martial to try a British merchant and a British marine, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister respectively. The former was a trader with a fistic side, the latter a soldier of fortune. It wasn’t obvious that either committed a crime, but in a time of gripping war and loosening scruples, the presumption tends to lean in all ambiguous cases toward guilt. Arbuthnot and Ambrister were charged with aiding the Seminoles in their fight against the U.S. Presiding over their case was a perfunctory court which lacked jurisdiction to hold the trial. Ultimately, the court wanted one thing. It cared not for the subtleties of international law nor the potential clemency one might show to a friend. Blood was on its and Jackson’s mind, and that’s what they got.
Their injudicious killing was unlawful—of this we can be sure. At the time, one might even have feared its potential to become another Anglo-American casus belli of which—at least so far as our recent history was concerned—there were many. But in the aftermath of the “Arbuthnot and Ambrister Incident” (as it innocently came to be known) and contrary to contemporary expectation, a war didn’t break out. Instead, there was peace—the likes of which has remained unbroken up till and including this day.
British trade with its former colony and recent adversary had finally gotten itself on a good foot. Exports to America were up, impressment of her soldiers down and textiles returned to the states as cotton flowed to the isles in the east. Americans wanted to dress and live like aristocrats. British industrialists were happy to oblige. With the help of raw and endless American commodities (of which we number things like cotton, indigo, etc.), they were able to indulge our lavish fancies and our sumptuous trends. On both sides of the Atlantic, the old empire and the new were enjoying a lucrative and increasingly liberal trade as they hadn’t before.
In light of this prodigious but tenuous boon, were the British really expected to throw it all away because of some silly little war crime that happened in a far-off land? Should their commerce be overcome by their conscience merely because two Scotsman had been killed in a tropical, savage waste? Would a murder in the mangroves render unsustainable our special relationship forevermore? Was not decency, if it dared impede with profit, already essentially dead?
As it turns out, it was. Lord Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain at the time, accepted the murder as nothing more than a venial sin. Ever the cold-blooded capitalist and statesman (not unlike the type we so admire today), Castlereagh proved himself a man who valued profit above punishment. He wanted peaceful and workable relations with America, and he knew that a demand for redress would be met with hostility—however unwarranted that hostility may be. And thus, without seeking retribution, he let the incident go.
Should we—Americans in the twenty-first rather than the nineteenth century—be taking a lesson from Lord Castlereagh’s example in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s death? This is the question to which our political and business leaders have no palatable response. If we take his example and ignore the murder that was carried out in Istanbul, the humanitarian cries. If we deny his example, and thereby sanction or anathematize the Saudi monarchy, the coin and the liveliness of its trade dies. The time, it appears, has arrived to choose one option or the other, and the choice is between conscience or commerce. Castlereagh chose the latter. So too, it seems, shall we.