These things that do happen when a country is in the vice-grip of the state - Businesslive

29 October 2018 - The most breathtaking four words spoken last week — as the horrific sum of gathering revelations confirmed mild-mannered journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey — must be Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir’s fatalistic: “These things unfortunately happen.”

Michael Morris

The most breathtaking four words spoken last week — as the horrific sum of gathering revelations confirmed mild-mannered journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey — must be Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir’s fatalistic: “These things unfortunately happen.”

His extraordinarily ill-chosen words prompted ABC’s North America correspondent, Conor Duffy, to wonder: “When was the last time a journalist was murdered inside a foreign consulate by rogue staff?” To say such things “unfortunately happen”, Duffy added, “was the kind of flippant description you’d give to a minor car crash or storm damage”.

Whatever Jubeir had meant to convey — that the killing was a mishap, that an otherwise unremarkable roughing-up of a dissident went too far, or that rogue elements subverted a routine diplomatic encounter for their own perverse ends — what they reveal most acutely is the cost of a political culture of profound unfreedom.

Khashoggi’s death is a corollary. The protean shifts in Riyadh’s version of what happened as the room for lies has steadily dwindled is another. So is the almost sinister silence of the mass of ordinary Saudi Arabians. There are many others. But at the heart of them all is that cruel fatalism haplessly expressed by Jubeir, the revelation of an acceptable margin of indifference to the consequences of power in the life of a person. There can be no comfort in imagining the Khashoggi tragedy is in any way alien, for the impulse that created it is, we know, unprejudiced and universal.

The test of real freedom — whether in moments of crisis, whatever those might be, or in the benign course of administrative relations with citizens — is the regard of the powerful for the individual, and reverence for the idea of liberty as it is experienced, and expected, by the nameless man or woman in the street, on the bus, in the supermarket queue. It can’t be faked, and it can’t be imposed, if only because “it” is not a noun so much as a verb, a state of being, an activity, ceaseless, difficult, at times riven with contradiction, often unpredictable, but irrepressible as long as it is claimed and reclaimed by ordinary people.

Long-time Middle East watcher Thomas Friedman noted in one of the week’s innumerable analyses of the Khashoggi murder that he was “sad for the Saudi youth” who had pinned their hopes on the prospect of “real change, coming from the top”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (having already reopened cinemas and allowed women to drive cars!) seeming to be its plausible guarantor. This, of course, is precisely when the mythology of authority is at its most dangerous, because this is how it validates popular surrender. And when there’s resistance, intolerance and repression are painted as legitimate, and lethal interventions can be explained as “things that unfortunately happen”.

The keenest irony is that, in his last column, posthumously published by The Washington Post, Khashoggi foresaw these dynamics in his description of the wintry consequences of the briefly celebrated Arab Spring of not quite a decade ago.

“The Arab world,” he wrote, “was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries. They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information. These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.”

Doubtless, complex political, social and probably religious factors explain why this happened — but what they ultimately boil down to is habits of mind that tolerate authority over individual people.

None of this is as remote from SA as many may hope to believe — we live in a political environment of obsessive intervention, intrusion and regulation in which the “state” is the “nation”. From this has flowed chronic deficiency, waste, shameless corruption and criminality, and a narrative of promise that continues to persuade an immiserated majority to live with it, implicitly to concede that “these things unfortunately happen”.

Freedom, as children should be taught at school, though not necessarily in the grammar class, is a “doing word”. It abhors complacency as much as fatalism, and must always be dangerous to those who are determined to preserve the illusion that theirs are the best intentions.

•Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2018-10-29-michael-morris-these-things-that-do-happen-when-a-country-is-in-the-vice-grip-of-the-state/

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