The Senate vote on Tuesday for legislation to enable families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages was a dramatic and striking event for a number of reasons.
First, because by clearing the way for legal action against a long-term ally of the U.S., which has threatened economic retaliation if the bill becomes law, it could permanently wreck relations with that ally. But also because it comes in defiance of President Barack Obama who said he would veto it if it reaches his desk (the House still has to vote on it).
And because of the manner of its passage — unanimously.
The unanimity of the Senate is noteworthy, not only as an instance of bipartisanship in an era so maniacally partisan, but also because the issue is by no means a simple case of justice for the victims of terrorism.
Rather, it is a classic case of a conflict between morality and realpolitik; the heartfelt desire to see the monsters responsible for the crime of September 11 pay for what they did, versus the pragmatic considerations of international politics and law.
We would have expected some of the senators, at least among the Democrats, to side with the White House. The arguments against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) are not, after all, easily disregarded.
The Saudis have reportedly threatened to sell off $750 billion of Treasuries and other assets in the U.S. if the bill goes through. The question some are asking: is justice for the victims — and we are speaking of justice in the form of financial compensation — worth the potentially far-reaching financial repercussions?
On the other hand, some say the question need not be asked, since as Republican Senator John Cornyn, a co-sponsor of the bill, said on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia is making “a hollow threat. They are not going to suffer a huge financial loss in order to try to make a point.” Such a massive sell-off could have devastating effects on their own economy, which by the way is pegged to the dollar.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir denies the threat was made. “We don’t use economic policy for political purposes,” he declared, and insists that his country’s objection is one of principle. “What [Congress is] doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle,” he said.
This is the nub of the Obama administration’s stated objection, as well. More to the point, it would be a jungle crawling with anti-Americanism. Some argue that no nation benefits more from sovereign immunity than the U.S., since it conducts far more diplomatic, economic and military activities overseas than any other country.
While we have confidence in the independence and fairness of the American judiciary, we have no such confidence in the judicial systems of many other countries. America and its citizens would become inviting targets for unrestricted legal attack.
Yet, the Senate was defiant on Tuesday. Senator Charles Schumer of New York said he would vote to override a veto and predicted that this time (unlike the Iran time) there would be sufficient Democratic votes for the necessary two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto.
Why are the senators so united in their support for JASTA?
It may be that the senators see the sands of historical time running out for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. America doesn’t need their oil anymore as it did in the 1970’s when an OPEC embargo caused long lines at gas stations and a crash in the stock market. The returns of snuggling up to a dictatorship infamous for its human rights abuses, racism and anti-Semitism have diminished.
Furthermore, the Obama administration has made a strategic choice to deal with Iran despite Saudi outrage. Why should the U.S. be so concerned about its reaction to JASTA?
“What this legislation means to the victims of 9/11 transcends day-to-day politics,” Schumer said. It will ensure that foreign governments who backed terror attacks on U.S. soil “will pay a price if it is proven they have done so.”
The Senator from New York is right on this one. JASTA should become law. The feelings of the family members must come before the feelings of the Saudis.