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 American about its role in the war?
By contrast, the murder of Khashoggi has received wall-to-wall news coverage, and politicians in America in both parties are speaking out against the Saudi government (a notable exception is the Trump White House, which seems eager to accept the Saudi government’s explanation).
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.
Read more about the discrepancy between the outrage over the murder of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen in Max Fisher’s New York Times article “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash that Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not.”
Photograph of Jamal Khashoggi by April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy, CC BY 2.0