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.

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