One Hundred Billion Versions of Silence

Will these names be spoken by American officials this weekend in Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi, Ali Mohamed al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Ashraf Fayadh?

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The president of the United States will have one hundred billion reasons after this weekend to ignore the facts about the nation he chose as his first foreign destination: Saudi Arabia. He and his already embattled administration chose Saudi Arabia as the location of his first summit abroad—rather than Canada or Mexico, which U.S. presidents traditionally visit first—for a photo op: the president with King Salman and a game-show-style giant check between them.

The United States and Saudi Arabia will announce this weekend that Saudi Arabia will purchase at least $100 billion worth of military equipment, software, and ongoing expertise from American military contractors. Some military business experts estimate that after a decade the deals will be worth three hundred billion dollars.

“The customer is always right,” goes the old retail cliché, and there are two parts to a customer’s continual rightness: the customer has a right to complain about the product purchased or the service in the store no matter what, and the service has a duty to remain silent about the customer’s behavior, even when it is offensive.

One hundred billion dollars will buy a lot of silence.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has been one of our biggest military customers for decades. Since 2010, that nation has cut deals to purchase more than $90 billion worth of fighter jets, missile defense systems, equipment, and expertise from American arms manufacturers. And these are merely the public deals. A $1.29 billion agreement to sell “air-to-ground munitions” (the four-word phrase for “bombs”) was announced in November 2015 to very little fanfare, as it was merely one more in a long series of such purchases.

The Obama administration last year began the process of halting certain types of arms sales to Saudi Arabia because the air-to-ground munitions used against forces that Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen were killing civilians there. The U.S. offered to train Saudi forces in targeting.

Each of the Republican candidates for president last year, including the victorious Mr. Trump, pledged to ignore the Obama administration’s concerns about human rights, however minimal those concerns were. (The right to be a civilian who is not killed by an “air-to-ground munition” inside one’s residence is perhaps the most minimal, basic, and essential of human rights.) And so we have doubled our business, and Yemeni civilians will likely die as a result.

We like to keep our customers happy. Our best customer, Saudi Arabia, was not happy about our participation in signing the multi-party, international treaty with Iran in 2015. (Why did all the Republican candidates for President decry that deal? Why does the President continue to denounce it? He was just given an additional one hundred billion answers to be added to the previous ninety billion answers to be against it.) Our customer wants us to see the world through its own bipolar lenses, itself versus Iran, and it wants our reassurances that we do. We do now.

The current President of the United States does not speak about human rights, not in this country and not abroad. Human rights is not one of his topics. He knows, better than I do, that not one vote was cast last year for any candidate for president because he or she spoke about international human rights or risked criticizing one of our staunchest allies, Saudi Arabia.

Not many American politicians risk criticizing Saudi Arabia in part because our nations’ two economies are thoroughly entwined, and also because it is difficult even for those of us who are opposed to capital punishment to criticize another nation for having capital punishment, since we employ capital punishment in this nation.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are two of the 36 nations that remain on the planet that have capital punishment available as an official legal remedy. Saudi Arabia is one of the few that executes its convicts in public, and it is one of the very few that executes juvenile offenders, which Ali Mohamed al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher certainly were at the time of their arrests during the Arab Spring protests. This contravenes international agreements that defend the rights of children, agreements that Saudi Arabia signed but ignores.

The three were arrested for attending protests, were underage at the time of their arrests, were charged with crimes so numerous that the three of them acting together as a gang could not have committed the crimes that any one of them was charged with committing alone, were tortured into signing false confessions, were not allowed to mount adequate defenses or even informed in time when their appeals would be heard, were each convicted, and were each sentenced to die. Each remains on death row.

The United States poisons those who have been convicted of murder, treason, or terrorism and who have been sentenced to die. Saudi Arabia uses beheading as its method of capital punishment, performs this punishment in public, and kills for crimes that most Western nations do not consider crimes: sorcery, apostasy (not believing in the correct deity), adultery. Further, Saudi Arabia has an instituted practice of crucifying the already dead body and displaying it in public.

Saudi Arabia also employs corporal punishment, something very few nations, including the United States, officially use. It flogs its citizens for reasons that include writing things its regime does not approve of. Raif Badawi and Ashraf Fayadh are but two examples of this policy of official cruelty meted out as punishment for thinking unapproved thoughts. Badawi was caned in 2015 and Fayadh has been sentenced to be whipped, too.

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy, and every theocratic dictator that has ever dominated a nation has adored the smell of blood on his hands. The Salafists in Saudi Arabia certainly appear to love it. Religious belief is an opinion. States with official religions always kill outsiders; they use religion as a tool to oppress, not free, people.

(Putting my hand to my ear.) One hundred billion versions of silence loudly echo back.

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Over the last twenty-six months, I have written and published some four dozen articles about Raif Badawi, Ali al-Nimr, Ashraf Fayadh.

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