It’s nice to know, albeit perversely, that some limits still exist. This will come as cold comfort to Jamal Khashoggi, the world-traveling Washington Post reporter who stepped inside Istanbul’s Saudi consulate on October 2 and never stepped out again. We have since learned that within two minutes, Khashoggi — a lifelong palace insider who’d gotten terminally sideways with the most recent occupant of the Saudi throne — had been swarmed by 15 Saudi government goons. Within seven minutes, he was dead. Within 22 minutes, he’d been sawed into so many bits and pieces that his remains could be carted away in ice cube trays.
In the month since Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi government has offered many different stories. First, they said he walked away on his own steam. Then they said he had gotten into a fistfight at the consulate. Then they acknowledged he got strangled as part of that fight. But, they insisted, his death wasn’t part of any orchestrated plan. It just happened, as things sometimes do when one person is having a fistfight with 15 others.
Thanks to audiotapes recorded by the Turkish government, which has been bugging the Saudi embassy, we now have a more complete version of the story — in its “full nakedness,” as promised Turkish dictator Recep Erdoğan. Only when compared to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (a k a MBS), the suspected mastermind in the Khashoggi killing, does Erdoğan look remotely palatable. If arresting, beating, and jailing reporters were an Olympic event, Erdoğan himself would be a gold medal winner, such is his regard for the free press.
But thanks to Erdoğan, we now know that the Saudis — however impromptu they claim the Khashoggi killing was — just happened to have a body double on hand who looked remarkably like the 59-year-old Khashoggi, except for the fact he didn’t have a goatee. As happenstance would have it, someone brought along a fake beard. Likewise, a forensic physician — in fact, Saudi Arabia’s foremost autopsy expert — happened to be on hand as well. And he just happened to bring along his bone saw. The work of cutting up human bodies, the forensic physician could be heard on tape saying, can prove quite stressful. To deal with that stress, he was heard recommending, those doing the actual sawing might consider listening to music.
Even Donald Trump — initially inclined to swat away reports of Khashoggi’s bloody demise as inconvenient, improbable, and irritating — had to wince. For Trump, the truth always is whatever is convenient for him to think in the moment. In the Khashoggi killing, Trump is most concerned about the $110 billion worth of weapons he’s said the Saudi government is going to buy. Those indifferent to the truth are often troubled by accuracy. The real number, the experts tell us, is closer to $15 billion in military sales. That matters only, I suppose, if that’s the price for which you’re selling your soul.
Over time, even Trump was forced to acknowledge the obvious. The whole plan, he now says, was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. As for the cover, it’s the “the worst ever.” This is something about which he would know. There is no sense of outrage, however. That Trump is saving for the caravan of immigrant refugees now marching north from Central America. Those he’s using to scare his base — with what Trump readily admits are unfounded allegations of “unknown Middle Easterners” and other “criminal” elements — to the polls two weeks hence. If I didn’t know better, I might suspect he planned it.
It is tempting, of course, to blame Trump for everything, but probably not fair. At least not totally. But when the so-called leader of the so-called free world issues nonstop fatwas against the media, repeatedly attacking reporters as “enemies of the people,” that has an effect. It riles up those who otherwise need to be calmed down. Bonds of restraint become frayed. They snap. Last year, Greg Gianforte, a Montana Republican running for Congress against a tax-dodging, banjo-picking nudist, felt entitled to grab a reporter named Ben Jacobs around the throat with both hands, throw him to the ground so hard his legs bounced, and punch him several times more. Last week, Trump praised that Republican — who pleaded guilty to criminal charges — famously saying, “Any guy that can do a body slam — he’s my kind of guy.” It should be noted that Gianforte went ballistic after Jacobs asked whether he’d read a government report, then just released, showing that 23 million people would lose health insurance if the Affordable Care Act were repealed.
To play the hometown card, the murdered Khashoggi had ties to Santa Barbara connections, his uncle Essam Khashoggi being until relatively recently a longtime Hope Ranch resident — along with his wife, Layla Khashoggi, and their kids. Essam was very much unlike his brother Adnan Khashoggi — the flamboyantly high-profile, $250,000-a-day-lifestyle-of-the-rich-and-infamous, globetrotting arms merchant involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Quiet and serious, Essam avoided his brother’s limelight like the plague. In the early 1980s, he had agreed to bankroll an extravagant re-intervention of the intersection of State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard. The plan was for a major roundabout, surrounded by fountains and four tall Corinthian columns. Essam backed out when his role became known. It also turned out that Santa Barbarans greatly preferred the frolicking dolphin fountain, the work of the recently late, always great Bud Bottoms.
In the meantime, the question remains, where is Jamal Khashoggi’s body? And what, if anything, will the Trump administration do about the United States’ strategic ally, Saudi Arabia? I doubt we have achieved “full nakedness” yet, but the good news is there’s no fig leaf big enough to cover this up. As good news goes, though, it doesn’t get much worse.