By Andrew Quist
Why did the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi lead to international outrage against Saudi Arabia when the humanitarian crisis the country caused in Yemen was met with indifference?
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been fighting a war against the Houthi militia in Yemen. The United States is assisting by providing intelligence and logistical support. The Saudi military has killed thousands of civilians with air strikes, including an attack on a school bus that killed 40 children in August. The war also caused a cholera outbreak and mass starvation. Where has the outrage been for these atrocities? And why hasn’t there been a debate in America about its role in the war?
By contrast, the murder of Khashoggi has received wall-to-wall news coverage, and U.S. politicians in both parties are speaking out against the Saudi government.
Two related cognitive biases have likely contributed to this contrast. Psychic numbing prevents us from feeling empathy for large groups of victims. The identifiable victim effect causes us to feel heightened sympathy for one identified victim. This emotion disappears when we are confronted with statistical deaths.
Psychic numbing is obviously a problem, but what can we do about it? We can notice it operating within ourselves and remember that statistical deaths are deaths of individuals with a name and a family.
It is also important to make policy changes to address the underlying harm. As philosopher Peter Singer wrote in a recent op-ed, “Psychic numbing may be a human emotional response that is part of our nature, but few people would deny that a million deaths is a far greater tragedy than one death. Whatever our emotions may prompt us to do, at the level of public policy and corporate decision-making, we should understand that numbers matter and act accordingly.” To stop the suffering in Yemen, we can demand our leaders halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and, as Singer suggests, demand that oil companies be transparent about the source of their oil so consumers can decide to stop supporting the Saudi regime by buying its oil.
Read more about the discrepancy between the outrage over the murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen in the following articles: “Why Congress Suddenly Cares About Yemen: It’s About Psychology, Not Politics” by Paul Slovic and Andrew Quist in Politico, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash that Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not” by Max Fisher in The New York Times, and Peter Singer’s article in Project Syndicate, “Are You Buying Oil from Saudi Arabia?”
Photograph of Jamal Khashoggi by April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy, CC BY 2.0