Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Christopher Hitchens' Brain, and how 9/11 Broke It

I suspect that 9/11 is like Hamlet, in that every conceivable thing that could ever be said about it has already been said.  So I want to say right from the get-go that I do not expect any of my observations about 9/11 to possess even a shred of originality.

When looking at the victims of 9/11, we find two obvious categories: those who were killed or injured in the attacks, and their family members, left to grieve or nurse a wounded loved one back to health.  But there’s a third category, which—to put it bluntly—consists of those who escaped 9/11 physically unscathed, but of whom it can nonetheless be said that 9/11 broke their brains.  My primary example of this type of 9/11-induced damage is the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). 
Hitchens in 2007, as photographed by José Ramírez.
(There, I did the attribution.  Are you happy, Wikimedia Commons?
Prior to 9/11, his career was a long series of attacks on imperialist bastards, demagogues, and hucksters of one type or another: Henry Kissinger, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (“Mother Teresa”), Bill Clinton.  He wouldn’t let up on the criminality of the Nixon administration and the catastrophic American wars in Southeast Asia, he called attention to American meddling in Chile and Cyprus, he co-edited a book with Edward Said about the plight of the Palestinians, he demanded the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece; he was just an all-around good, solid left-winger.

The first signs of illness in Hitchens could be detected in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his death sentence on Salman Rushdie and a lot of British leftists who should have known better either said that Rushdie was an attention whore and he’d brought this on himself (A. Alvarez, John le Carré) or even went so far as to say that Rushdie was in the wrong for offending the sensibilities of the Muslims (looking at you, John Berger).  And so Hitchens described in his own words how the tepid response of the British left to the Rushdie affair was the first crack in his commitment to leftism (and he had every right to be disappointed in these individual leftists, although I hardly think that discredits leftist ideas in general).  But throughout the 90’s he generally stayed the course: he wrote his book attacking Kissinger, he went after Clinton for a being a reactionary liar, he wrote his screed against Mother Teresa (tastefully entitled The Missionary Position).  

It was in 2001 that he published The Trials of Henry Kissinger.  One September 10th, 2001, the day before the 28th anniversary of the American-backed coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile and brought in the Pinochet dictatorship, the family of Chilean general Rene Schneider, who was murdered at Kissinger’s instigation in 1970, brought suit against the aging “elder statesman” in the United States.  And then the next day 9/11 happened, and we would never here about that again.  And Christopher Hitchens’ brain imploded upon itself, and emerging from the rubble of his leftist intellect was a gung-ho supporter of George W. Bush and his brand of American militarism.  Any trace of Hitchens’ skepticism of American power had been wiped away, and the Bushies could do no wrong, as long as they set about the noble mission of killing Muslims around the world, first by launching the catastrophic attack on Afghanistan and then by launching the even more appalling invasion of Iraq (I suppose Hitchens would have said that he just supported the killing of Muslim militants, but he didn’t seem to disturbed about the tens of thousands of innocent Muslims who would inevitably be killed in the process).  Christopher Hitchens, despite his much vaunted intelligence, appears to have believed the bullshit going into Iraq, and when it became clear (as it already was beforehand, to those who were willing to apply even a little skepticism to the subject) that Iraq did not in fact have weapons of mass destruction (and that right there should have been enough to force Bush to resign in disgrace for bringing the US to war under patently false pretenses, but sigh, this is America) and furthermore that Iraq did not have ties to al-Qaeda (surprise, surprise, the secularist government of Saddam Hussein had not allied itself with religious fanatics who had made it clear that they hated him), I say, once all of this shit became undeniable, Hitchens wasn’t ruffled.  He just retroactively changed the justification for the war.  Suddenly it wasn’t about WMD’s or al-Qaeda, it was about liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein.  And if the American military committed atrocities along the way, they didn’t really count (he was famously dismissive of the Haditha massacre, because it wasn’t nearly as bad as the My Lai massacre, which Hitchens had once vociferously condemned).  And even as so many other nominal leftists who had supported the war came to repent once the extent of the disaster became clear (what with the civil war and the communal cleansing and the daily suicide attacks), Hitchens stood his ground.  And he remained an unrepentant supporter of one of the most catastrophic (especially for the Iraqis whom the US had “liberated”) US military actions in history right up until his death.  And that’s the tragedy of Christopher Hitchens.

Now, I’m aware that he had other flaws too (lots of casual sexism, an inability to distinguish between being argumentative and just being an asshole), but there’s just something really distressing about such a large-scale moral and intellectual failing as Hitchens’ support for the neo-con agenda post-9/11.  One wonders what the Christopher Hitchens of the 1980’s would have made of his Bush and Obama-era counterpart.  I recall the appendix to Tariq Ali’s Bush in Babylon (2004), which addresses the question: “What the hell happened to Christopher Hitchens?” (And that’s only a slight paraphrase).  After all, Hitchens and Ali used to share the same generally far-left publisher, Verso (they have a “V” logo, which I should imagine would be a bit confusing in Britain, where Vintage has a slightly more stylized “V” logo, but I digress).  And Verso continues to carry the “classic” Hitchens texts, like The Trials of Henry Kissinger, but it would have been inconceivable for them to carry his pro-Iraq War polemic, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003) (the “short” in the title presumably refers to what must have seemed like the “short” duration of American combat activities in Iraq when the book was published).  In the introduction to the book, Hitchens cites Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi huckster whose lies and manipulations played a key role in convincing the Bushies that they would be “greeted as liberators” and that, while they were at it, they should probably put Chalabi in power after Hussein had been removed.  Again, how someone of Hitchens’ intellectual prowess failed to see through a con artist like Chalabi is almost inexplicable, unless one concludes that Hitchens had been absolutely blinded by 9/11.

As I conclude this rather pessimistic 9/11 piece, I should mention Hitchens wasn’t the only one to go morally bankrupt after 9/11.  The entire American political “left” (by which I mean those “leftists” with actual political power, and in scare-quotes because they’re hardly leftists), all the Democrats rallied around Bush and enthusiastically supported his curtailment of civil liberties in the United States, his invasion of Afghanistan, and his invasion of Iraq under completely bullshit pretenses, which were so absurd that they make the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident look like Pearl Harbor.  And Obama didn’t support the Iraq War, but that’s because he was a state senator in Illinois at the time and his opinion on the war didn’t matter.  Upon coming into power, he’s done all sorts of evil shit of his own, including maintaining the “tropical gulag” at Guantanamo Bay (that’s not my original description of it, but I don’t remember who to credit [maybe Harold Pinter?]), continuing the detention of people that his own Justice Department has determined to be innocent, blowing up scores of innocent people in Pakistan and Yemen, ordering the extra-judicial killings of American citizens in Yemen, and all of this with bipartisan support, thusly establishing the precedent that this shit is ok to do.

So everybody in the American political class (with a few choice exceptions, of course: Kucinich-Sanders 2012!) is a morally bankrupt sell-out.  They have all caught the Hitchens syndrome.

Oh, also, if anyone thinks it’s in poor taste to speak of ill of the dead, as I have done here with Hitchens, you should remember that (a) he’s been dead for almost a year now and (b) he spoke ill of the dead all the time.  His attack on Jerry Falwell in the immediate aftermath of that hateful bigot’s death was one of his finest moments.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Really Troublesome History: Rob Lemkin’s and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People

I like to think that no historical event, no matter how horrific, is unexplainable.  There are those who say that certain horrors—the Holocaust being the one where this comes up most frequently—defy explanation, but I don’t buy that.  The Holocaust may be the worst of all the historical things, but it’s the result of historical processes and these can be understood, more or less.  But when they say that it’s “unexplainable,” they’re generally referring not to the historical processes in question but rather to the moral question: How could people do this?

It becomes especially troublesome when the participation in the slaughter in question is on a large scale; during the Rwandan genocide, thousands upon thousands of ethnic Hutus butchered their Tutsi neighbors.  And to speak bleakly, the Rwandan genocide required mass participation in a way that the Holocaust didn’t.  The Holocaust was mechanized, industrialized slaughter, whereas the Rwandan genocide was perpetrated in one of the poorest countries in the world, by a Third World army and militias armed with machetes.  It was very low-tech killing, but in the one hundred days or so during which the Rwandan genocide took place, they actually managed, by some calculations, to kill more efficiently than did the Nazis.

The Cambodian genocide that took place during the relatively brief regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) is comparable to the Rwandan genocide in terms of the low-tech methods of slaughter employed.  First, there’s just starvation, which doesn’t require any positive action on the part of the killer, but merely his willingness to inflict deprivation on his victim.  But it seems like much of the killing, at least as it was discussed in Rob Lemkin’s and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People, (2009) was perpetrated with knives and sharpened bamboo poles.

Lemkin’s and Thet’s documentary follows Thet as, over a period of years, he carries out filmed interviews with perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, many of whom are free and carrying on with their lives; Thet’s interviews range from the lowest-ranking of killers all the way up to Nuon Chea, the so-called “Brother No. 2,” whose authority in the Khmer Rouge was second only to that of Pol Pot himself (Pol Pot was Brother No. 1).  Thet—whose parents, brother, and sister all died under the Khmer Rouge—gives these people a platform in which to explain themselves and it’s in these interviews that we face the question that I raised at the beginning of this post: How could people do such things?  Amongst the lower-ranking killers, Thet and Lemkin focus on two men named Suon and Khoun, who probably killed dozens of people combined, if not more, during their time in the Khmer Rouge (neither of them produces a specific number of victims, although Suon evidently killed enough people that, as he explains it, his hand grew tired from slitting throats, and he switched over to just stabbing people in the neck).  And when we see them now, in late middle age (for so many of the killers and torturers of the Khmer Rouge regime were young, even in their teens, during that period, a fact emphasized in Rithy Panh’s equally exacting and depressing documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), which is worth watching), they don’t look like bad people, nor do they look like murderers.  Thet demonstrates an amazing restraint with these men, given that they’re the same type of people who killed his family.  But I suspect he’s struck by it too, that these men may once have been killers, but they’re not anymore.  Now they’re just trying to live.  And to Suon’s and Khoun’s credit, they both seem genuinely remorseful for their crimes (Suon especially; he says he feels desolate and he fears he’ll be reincarnated through many levels of Hell before again obtaining a human rebirth; his large eyes carry an enormous pathos and one could definitely say of him that he “looks” hunted and haunted.) But every time one feels inclined to sympathize with them, we hear more of their terrible crimes, including the killing of children and the practice of drinking from the gall bladders of their victims (Khoun explains how a higher-up told him that human gall could cure dengue fever).

Nuon Chea is not nearly as repentant.  Apparently Thet spent years gaining his trust and establishing a rapport with him in numerous conversations over time, before he finally got Nuon to speak openly about the Khmer Rouge regime and its crimes (the first time that a Khmer Rouge leader had ever done so, according to Thet).  Nuon appears to be something of a true believer; if not, he’s very good at faking it.  When he begins to talk of the killings, he speaks of the necessity of protecting Cambodia from Vietnamese and American spies who were trying to sabotage the party (I have never heard an explanation for how the Khmer Rouge reconciled the cognitive dissonance necessary to sustain a belief in the machinations of a Vietnamese-American anti-Cambodian alliance).  Nuon says quite chillingly that if he had to choose between the well-being of the nation versus the well-being of an individual, he would always choose the nation.  He expresses regret over the innocents who were murdered (he makes the doubtful claim that he and Pol Pot were unaware of what was going on in the rural areas), but it never enters his head that everybody who was killed was undeserving of death.

There’s a remarkable scene in which the septuagenarian Nuon watches footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution on the news and asks Thet, “Is this real?”

Thet’s relationship with Nuon is fascinating, because there clearly exists some kind of camaraderie between the two.  Thet describes his years-long relationship with Nuon in terms of a collaborative process, as they’re both working towards Thet’s goal of documenting the confessions of Khmer Rouge murderers (the extent to which Nuon would have seen their relationship in these terms is more dubious).  At the beginning of the film, Thet states explicitly that he has lied to Nuon about his family, stating that his parents died in the 1980’s of causes unrelated to the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is only near the end of the film, as Nuon’s indictment on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity looms, that Thet chooses to reveal to Nuon the truth about his family.  Nuon seems to be rendered almost speechless, and then he says that he’s terribly sorry for what happened to them.  And then shortly thereafter, Nuon is arrested and incarcerated for his trial, and that’s the end of his interviews with Thet.

Perhaps we cannot fully understand or “explain” how events like the Cambodian genocide can happen, but we can at least describe them.  And looking back on this post, I think I’ve done more describing—“Thet said this,” “Nuon said that”—than explaining.  And I think I find myself at something of a loss here for what to say about the matter.  Thet seems to have done so as well; near the end of the film, he says (and I’m paraphrasing): “I guess I feel bad that Nuon was taken away, even though I know I shouldn’t.” And of course I know that Nuon Chea has committed horrible atrocities.  But when we seem him in this film, he’s an old man, dandling an infant grandchild or great grandchild on his knee, harming no one.  I feel compassion for him despite myself (or rather, despite himself), and so does Thet, who has far more reason to hate Nuon Chea that I do.

I am reminded of a line by William T. Vollmann, in his essay detailing his liberation of a child prostitute in Thailand.  He goes to see the girl’s father, who literally sold her into sex slavery, to essentially “buy” her away from him, thusly securing her freedom.  And he goes into it ready to hate and revile the father, and its starts out that way, but he concludes by saying, “He didn’t seem like a bad person.  Most people aren’t.” Nuon Chea doesn’t seem like a bad person either; but I know that he is.

It is difficult, in forming moral judgments, to deal with the fact that nobody is evil all the time.  The man who once committed murder must later sit down and eat breakfast.  In describing Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” which has become such a cliché that it has almost been entirely drained of meaning.  But what I think she’s trying to convey by it is that very few people who do bad things are spectacular monsters.  They’re just normal people who have it in them to commit the most atrocious and unforgivable crimes.

At present, I have nothing else to say on the matter, other than to note that Nuon Chea and several other high-ranking Khmer Rouge figures are currently on trial in Phnom Penh.  All of them are in their eighties.  It is hoped that they will live long enough to receive a verdict (rather than trying all the charges at once, eat charge will get its own trial, the idea being to make sure that they live long enough to be convicted of something; I suspect the examples of Milosevic and Pinochet, both of whom died during their trials, have not been lost on the Cambodian prosecutors.)  Anyway, I don’t doubt that Khmer Rouge leaders on trial deserve to be there.