Christopher Hitchens Was No Angel

When Christopher Eric Hitchens passed away on December 15th of last year, his death from oesophageal cancer, whilst expected, did nonetheless come as a shock to many given his firm resoluteness in battling the disease. The eulogies in his memory came in rapid succession, each one seemingly revealing another level of his irreverent and upstart nature. He was remembered as, “…one of the greatest orators of all time. He was a polymath, a wit, immensely knowledgeable, and a valiant fighter against all tyrants including imaginary supernatural ones.”, by Richard Dawkins, with Stephen Fry noting that he was someone who “…opened up debate and gave voice to ideas and causes that without his talents would have been less ventilated and less understood.” Tony Blair also had the kindest of words to say about Hitchens, memorialising that he was “fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed.” For someone considered within the atheist movement to be one of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism”, it appeared that a hagiography of Hitchens was being written after, and even immediately prior, to his death. Despite being held up as a paragon of scepticism, rationality, and honesty, in the last decade of his life Hitchens was none of this. Instead, his rational faculties were seemingly suspended as he became a right-wing cheerleader for American-led Western invasions in the Middle East directly after 9/11.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, he debated Noam Chomsky in a series of articles in The Nation regarding the proper response to the attacks. Chomsky made the point that whilst the 9/11 attack was an atrocity, it was no worse than attacks that the U.S. has carried out against other countries, particularly in the Middle East and South America. As an example of this, Chomsky referred to the Clinton authorised bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998. The plant produced between 50 and 90 percent of that country’s pharmaceuticals, including the country’s entire supply of choloroquine, a malaria medication, with its destruction resulting in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese civilians. Hitchens’ response to this was that no comparison could be made, nor seemingly worthwhile, and he wrote that “In any case, I argued, the United States had no right to hit Sudanese territory without at least first requesting an inspection of the plant.” The framework that Hitchens was working within in his response presumes the right of the U.S. to intervene in the affairs of another country, disregarding the territorial rights of the country in question as defined under international law. This is what underlined all of Hitchens’ views regarding 9/11 and its aftermath. He was simply rehashing the right-wing mantra of “You don’t do that to people like us, we do that to people like you”.

Hitchens viewed the “War on Terror”, a hollow and meaningless phrase, as a “clash of civilisations”; the great theocratic Islamic threat versus the liberal and well-meaning West. Again, this simplifies and distorts the truth of the matter. Was it a “clash of civilisations” as Hitchens put it? Yes, but not in the way he saw it. He got it backwards. It always has been the West, and mainly the U.S. in the post-war years, in the form of consecutive administrations, that has intervened in the affairs of the Middle East, crushing dissent under the boot of U.S. strategic and corporate interests. It was not a hatred of the West that gave rise to the Islamic fundamentalism, which does indeed exist in the Middle East. Its origins instead lay in the aforementioned Western intervention in the region that crushed the nationalism of Nasser’s Egypt, which supported the Tunisian dictator Zine El Adidine Ben Ali, and which overthrew the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh’s Iran in 1953. Islam is what was left in the rubble of destroyed governments and nations, and this is what has resulted in the current climate in the Middle East, and it is what really brought about the 9/11 attacks. This was seemingly lost on Hitchens due to his intense hatred of religion, in particular Islam. He was blinded by his own ideology and dare I say it, dogma.

The invasion of Iraq was a prime example of this. He fully supported the invasion under the guise of removing a dictatorial tyrant in order to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. He seemingly forgot that Hussein was fully supported by the U.S. up to days before the First Gulf War, and that according to UNICEF 500,000 children had died due to U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003. These were apparently the prices one had to pay for combatting tyrants in the region. It had been known that Iraq had no WMD capability since at least 1998, according to former U.N weapons inspector Scott Ritter, with its chemical weapons stockpile having been destroyed in 1991 according to the Iraq Survey Group. Despite this, even as late as 2008 , Hitchens stood firm in his support of the invasion of Iraq, contending that on the contrary, if Western forces had not invaded Iraq in 2003, the world would in fact not be any safer, and that Hussein had to be removed from power. Later still, in 2010, less than one year from his death, he still believed that the consequences of the Iraq war did not outweigh its benefits. His support for the invasion of Iraq also extended to open support of George W. Bush, writing just two weeks before Bush’s re-election in 2004, that “The President, notwithstanding his shortcomings of intellect, has been able to say, repeatedly and even repetitively, the essential thing: that we are involved in this war without apology and without remorse.”

It is strangely apt that Tony Blair, one half of the war criminal duo whose militaries made up the main force which invaded Iraq, referred to Hitchens as “fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed.”  It is apt because even though Blair did help to bring peace to Northern Ireland, something he can be rightly proud of, his degeneration into a liar and outright warmonger seems to have presaged Hitchens’ own descent into the abyss. While he was alive, Hitchens would have been the first to admit that he was a contrarian and that he was certainly no angel. What has been seen since his death however, would lead one to believe the opposite. He has become an almost revered fallen soldier in some quarters of the atheist movement; a hagiographic icon for all non-believers. If we want to remember Hitchens the intellectual giant, then we must also remember Hitchens the unyielding and unquestioning warmonger.