The marketplace in Mastaba, a town in northwestern Yemen, must have been bustling on that March day. It was around noon, the sun was high in the sky, and vendors were hawking their wares to crowds of customers. Then they all died, or at least many of them did. Saudi jets buzzed overhead and dropped two bombs on the market, killing 97 civilians, including 25 children. At least one of the weapons was a GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb, weighing 2,000 pounds and supplied by the United States, specifically President Obama who’s supported the Saudis’ bloody war in Yemen and inked several arms deals with them.
Mind you, this was par for the course in the Yemen air theater, which has been haunted by Saudi jets that fly at unwieldy altitudes and have a habit of hitting civilian targets: last year, in one week alone, the Saudis bombed two weddings, killing close to 100. The greater death toll from the war numbers in the thousands. Yet there’s been no thunderous denunciations of the Saudis, no presidential encomiums for the slaughtered. Only recently did the president get around to blocking further cluster bomb sales to Riyadh, which is much too little too late.
That’s why it was so jarring to hear Obama say this following last Sunday’s massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando:
Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.
Turns out it’s also rather easy for someone to get his hands on a weapon that lets him rip apart a wedding or a peaceful marketplace—all you have to do is have a cozy relationship with the White House, even as you’re stoning gays to death and suppressing Shiite dissent in the background. Or, really, just take a number and get in line. In 2015, the United States sold more weapons to foreign countries than any other nation on earth, all while its president was chiding about the need to get guns off the streets. He’ll get to you eventually.
None of this is to detract from the horror of the carnage at Pulse, which uniquely rattled us as Americans because it was an attack on the free expression and assembly of our own people. It’s also not to muddy the distinction between arbitrary shootings and war, the former of which are pointless while the latter of which sometimes necessitates civilian casualties in the pursuit of a higher goal. But if there’s a higher goal in Yemen, it’s difficult to detect. Empowering the Islamic State? Beating back the Houthi rebels who hate al-Qaeda? Playing into the hands of cackling Iranians?
As we cry out for answers over the dead in Orlando, we should also spare some grief for those killed at the market in Mastaba, and throughout Yemen, and by the drone campaign in the Middle East, and at the hands of ISIS fighters carrying American weapons. Yes, there is a difference between senseless massacre and war, but Obama’s tight-fisted demands after the first and cavalier policy towards the second still make him look hypocritical. If he wants to stem gun violence—a worthy goal—perhaps he should examine his own policies first.