Opinion

CSI Istanbul: The Khashoggi True Crime Drama Is the Best Thing on TV

The only events that resonate these days are those framed in the form of a detectives-style investigation. Who cares about complexities if we can talk about hairs and DNA?

Sri Lankan journalists protesting Kahshoggi’s murder outside the Saudi Embassy in Colombo.
Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP

Saudi Arabia has been waging a cruel war in Yemen for more than three years. Millions of Yemenis have become refugees and 22 million of the country’s inhabitants rely on humanitarian aid for food and provisions. That aid, too, is limited. The Saudi siege – by sea, in the air and on the ground – is preventing access to millions of people. The United Nations recently declared that what is unfolding in Yemen is the world’s most serious humanitarian catastrophe.

But the war in Yemen is forgotten by most of the world, rarely making the newscasts. It’s apparently too much to be shocked at the horrors in Syria, Libya and Yemen at the same time. And thus, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman can enjoy the status of a political star, even as he lays waste to the neighboring country.

All that was true until the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a month ago. Overnight, the young, charismatic prince morphed into an arch-villain, and Saudi Arabia became the kingdom of evil. Even Donald Trump was forced to profess shock. And it really is appalling: A journalist is tortured and murdered outside his country and his body is chopped up. As if it had ever really been possible to think, before the murder, that Saudi Arabia was the embodiment of a functioning democracy.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was able to turn the Khashoggi affair into a one-man police drama. Like a detective or an investigating judge, he delivered a brilliant prosecution speech against the Saudis, presenting to the world the “naked truth” about the journalist’s murder. The media worldwide reported obsessively about the revelations in the case. Gradually a detailed picture emerged, just as you might expect from the TV detective series “CSI.”

But the truth that was presented on-screen, both in Erdogan’s speech and in the media in general, concealed a ludicrous show of major hypocrisy. First, it ignored the fact that Saudi Arabia, its moderate image notwithstanding, kills civilians all the time – not only in Yemen but on its own soil too (executions are not rare events in the kingdom; indeed, in August a citizen of Myanmar was crucified in Mecca after being convicted of murder and theft). Second, Erdogan himself persecutes journalists on a wholesale basis, and Turkey has been termed “the world’s biggest prison for journalists” by Reporters Without Borders. Third, freedom of the press and human rights are deteriorating in dozens of countries, and not just in the Middle East – due in no small measure to Trump himself, who has no compunctions about branding the media as the enemy of the people. But all these are trends, developments, processes. Nothing can compete with a snappy court drama.

A perusal of the newscasts in the past few months shows that the Khashoggi affair is not alone. The events that generate the greatest resonance are those that are framed on the news as ongoing detective investigations: the episode of the poisoned Russian spy Sergei Skripal, the affair of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the case of Sara Netanyahu. These are not routine crime stories; they are political affairs that take the form of criminal investigations, with all the suspects and all the evidence that they can entail.

Leaders also have a new role: They pose as top lawyers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no stranger to interrogation rooms himself, assumes the role of attorney time and again, presenting “new evidence” about the Iranian nuclear project. In contrast, the Russian defense minister presents evidence meant to prove Israel’s guilt in the downing of the Russian plane over Syria in September. And in that case, too, despite the hypocrisy ingrained in the Russian stance, the accusations are accepted with absolute seriousness.

An effective speech by a leader no longer presents a political doctrine or new ideas, but judicial revelations. Trump’s remarks last weekend following the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue contained a few scandalous statements, but that was of no interest to Ayala Hasson on Israel’s TV Channel 10 news. Ensconced in the studio, she cut off the broadcast of his comments because, Trump “didn’t provide new information.”

The media aren’t looking for an expression of this or that ideology, but rather seek dazzling forensic details. If it’s not legal-related, it’s not interesting. If there’s no suspect, there’s no point turning on the TV. No wonder the revelation about identification of a hair found on the body of Tair Rada – a girl who was murdered 12 years ago in Kiryat Shmona – sent reporters scurrying to the studios as though World War III had erupted. That drama was highlighted even earlier, in the miniseries “Shadow of Truth.” Young people who have never read a newspaper in their life and wouldn’t recognize the Knesset building or the country’s president, are experts about every mitochondrion in the cells of A.H., whose DNA matches that of the hair. The case of Roman Zadorov, who was convicted of Rada’s murder, will likely linger on even after Israel ceases to exist, floating in interstellar space.

It’s surprising sometimes to see how, amid all the uncertainty of our era, the belief in judicial truth continues to exist and is even gaining strength. Leaders of enemy countries, who seemingly agree on nothing, behave as though they’re all in one courtroom and presenting evidence to the jury. It’s important to take note of this, especially during a period in which clichés about the “post-truth era” are bandied about: The judicial truth is enjoying an unprecedented status.

Political dialogue in its conventional form, with parties and arguments about society and the economy, is collapsing in a grotesque show of grunts and groans. In his book “Futurability,” published last year, the Marxist thinker Franco Berardi maintains that democracy will not recover from its present crisis. In this age of fragility, he writes, an impotent public will be incapable of creating effective forms of autonomy, of fomenting change by dint of its willpower or of bringing about changes democratically, because the age of democracy is over.

In many places globally, there are no longer many people who still expect to bring about political change through a party that participates in a democratic public debate. The only method that still works is to produce evidence about a crime that was committed in the past. We are all prosecutors and we are all judges. We seem to have lost the ability to be citizens of the republic who choose intelligently. But to serve on a jury – that we’re ready to do, and even voluntarily.