Silencing a Critic: A Censor and Assassin
How better to censor a critic than to ensure his inability to speak? And if you’re willing to go to that far, you may as well go one step further. Having achieved the cessation of his speaking, of his thinking, of his criticizing in the public square, you might as well make certain that he no longer can breathe. Assassination, then, is the most extreme, yes, but doubtless the most effective form of censorship known to man.
Not only to men is this macabre sort of censorship known and—from time to time—put to use, but to monarchs (or those with presumptions to be) as well. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is such a monarch to have given assassination a try. That he most certainly did, but his results, as so often those of government programs tend to be, were mixed; the killing was successful, the death final, but the controversy and the resulting backlash unanimous, reverberative, and severe. By that metric, assassination (as orchestrated by a bumbling royal prince) seems not to have been the most effective form of censorship that he might’ve employed; the critic at whom his efforts were targeted and the man in whom his knives were thrust has refused the posthumous silence that the young prince so desperately sought.
The thirty-three-year-old Salman, or “MBS” as colloquially and notoriously he’s been dubbed, is a great many things without being a great, nor even a good single thing. The swarthy and imposing Salman, a man royal by lineage, progressive by nature, evil by inclination, and inept by evidence of his every other move, has become something of a paradox in the geo-political quagmire of the Middle East.
His liberalizing reforms are everywhere celebrated—at least in all places outside of the fundamentalist and Sharia-obsessed mosques. They’re seen as being noble and genuine steps in a direction facing West. He’s made the streets of Saudi Arabia unprecedentedly coed—allowing for the first time in the nation’s history females to enjoy as drivers rather than as passengers the asphalt beneath their feet. Improving the condition of one half of the population is no bad way to garner a sizable, if not a wholly feminine appeal. For this act alone, MBS deserves our applause. He appears to be the only Islamist prince in the region with so much as a penchant toward basic egalitarianism—the type every man and woman in this century ought to enjoy.
But if that wasn’t enough, he’s also introduced into that arid peninsula the more edifying parts of our American culture. Continuing this first step of sexual equality, he’s brought to his home our cinema, art, movies, and our uniquely American wrestling theater known as WWE. He’s also begun sedulously and promiscuously promoting his nation as one that’s “open for business” and quite willing and eager to invest wherever coffers are dry. Saddled with a purse and an ambition whose depth and weight are the types of which only a petro-state autocrat can conceive, MBS has spread his wealth as if it knew no constraint. Sure, from time to time some of this dissemination may seem venal or prodigal (in the past few years, he’s purchased with “his” money a $300 million chateau once inhabited by King Louis XIV and a $500 million yacht) but on the whole, his investments have been varied and sound. Within and without his own region, from the valley of the Euphrates to that of Silicon, Salman’s financial fingerprints can be seen.
So too can all his blemishes, of which there have been many. Rather conspicuously and shamelessly, for that matter, he’s helped to perpetuate a humanitarian crisis in Saudi Arabia’s neighboring country of Yemen. Besieged from above, Yemeni civilians in particular have been in large part the recipients of his often misplaced, always gratuitous military strength. Already, thousands have died, including students in buses and women in schools. And about those women he now permits to be behind the wheel? Before this twentieth-century liberty could be gained in the twenty-first, several women’s rights activists championing and hastening its implementation had to be jailed.
Most infamously, upon acceding to his position as Saudi Arabia’s de facto king, MBS had incarcerated in the capital city’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel a few dozen of his political enemies. Among them were business tycoons, cronies of the ancien régime, Saudi elites, and—for good measure—a few of his own family members. Two cousins, Turki bin Abdullah and Alwaleed bin Talal, who had the misfortune of being simultaneously princes and rivals, were captured as hostages in that opulent Alcatraz of the Middle East. It’s not known if or when these and possibly other men were freed or whither they’ve gone since. If nothing else, MBS’s move assured a world leery of his seemingly too drastically “progressive” agenda that nepotism would have no place. Can one call this progress, if it’s to be had at the price of fraternal blood?
But if not for nepotism, there must be some kind of government-sanctioned vice from which the crown prince can’t escape. His immunity can only be so strong. We find filling this void MBS’s newfound tendency toward assassination.
And thus we return to that most useful, and dare I say, final form of censorship. The voice in need of censoring, you well know by now, was that of Jamal Khashoggi. Arabian by extraction, American by necessity, Khashoggi had lived under the rank corruption of earlier Saudi regimes for the better part, or perhaps the worse part of his adult life. So situated, he was in the unusual position to be able to unearth the very corruption under which he and his fellow countrymen lived. For decades, that’s precisely what he strove to do.
But an inveterate critic, especially one who points out uncomfortable truths, won’t always be encouraged to speak his piece. The Saudi regime, it seems, would sooner have him rest in peace. Sensing a disquieting vulnerability in the country he called home, Khashoggi thought it best to remove himself from the view of MBS’s increasingly sanguinary eye. Embracing an exile perpetrated by and of himself, Khashoggi fled to the United States, where once he’d studied business at Indiana State University. Having lived a Hoosier in his college days, he opted to give the life of an imported patriot a try. He settled in none other than Washington D.C., that most opinionated of all places on Earth. It was there he worked as a columnist for that city’s namesake post.
Censorship, of course, is not something of which we glib Americans can easily conceive. Few of us even know that at one or two times in our nation’s history, proscriptions on language (the seditious and libelous kind as the government declared them to be) ever existed in this freest of countries. Joining the happy ignorance of a people steeped in a Constitutional tradition of unfettered speech, Khashoggi began publishing anti-MBS columns with a noticeable, if not an urgent frequency. Most of his columns (of whose bulk I’ve read, and of whose contents I have a fairly sound grasp) were surprisingly tame. He spoke as any classical liberal would. He yearned for greater personal freedom and better enumerated rights in the home he’d only recently and painfully forsook. He called attention to the government’s inveterate mismanagement of funds, whose bulk found their way not to the civil engineering projects for which they were intended, but to friends’ and allies’ pockets.
More than anything, though, he enlightened the world of the darker, and the potentially more sinister side of MBS. We were to realize through his insight and his work that the name “MBS” wasn’t to be made into some kind of a rhyme for “innocuous” or a hopeful synonym for “progress”. It was a name to be watched with reservation and with scrutiny.
But, as it turned out, MBS wasn’t the only one doing a bit of scrutinizing from afar. As Khashoggi profiled him, MBS followed Khashoggi’s whereabouts and plotted his demise. Fortuitously for the prince who longs to be a king, the latter arrived at the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul. There, in that once Roman, now Islamic town named for a quasi-Christian king, MBS sent a detachment of fifteen henchmen to intervene on his behalf.
Upon entering the consulate, Khashoggi (who was there attempting to obtain a marriage license so that he might tie the knot with his Turkish fiancée) was swiftly apprehended by the group. The rest of the details are murky, and, as of yet, unforthcoming, but undoubtedly they'll prove macabre. Suffice it to say, this most penetrating and audacious critic could be censored in but one way. At the direction of MBS, the group of fifteen did all but eviscerate the critic who dared to speak the truth. If the rumors are to be believed, it bludgeoned, amputated, flayed, and dismembered the now breathing, now limp Khashoggi and concerned itself with his nettlesome scribblings no more.
But did this assassination, so barbarically conceived and shoddily carried out, ultimately succeed in censoring him? The headlines for the past three weeks affirm, unequivocally, it has not. Assassination, we must in consolation agree, has not kept quiet this intrepid critic, this martyr for the unmasking of corruption and deceit. Perhaps, then, assassination isn’t the most effective means if silence is your end. Perhaps a great voice never really can be silenced.