Americans are rightly horrified at Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder, yet most fail to recognize that their own leaders' murderous ways may be little different than those who ordered Khashoggi’s death. The pervasiveness of state-sponsored killings is no excuse for treating murder as acceptable, ever.
NEW YORK – “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” asked Henry II as he instigated the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170. Down through the ages, presidents and princes around the world have been murderers and accessories to murder, as the great Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and Walter Lunden documented in statistical detail in their masterwork Power and Morality. One of their main findings was that the behavior of ruling groups tends to be more criminal and amoral than that of the people over whom they rule.
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
But no one should feel self-righteous here. American presidents have a long history of murder, something unlikely to trouble the current incumbent, Donald Trump, whose favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.