Christopher Hitchens’s War

Commentators used 9/11 to keep framing the world as liberty versus totalitarianism

Artillery Row

Before 9/11, Christopher Hitchens was, he claimed, becoming “post-ideological”. he wanted to write less about politics and more about literature and had planned to compose a book about Proust. I share Justin E.H. Smith’s scepticism that “The Hitch” could have stemmed the flow of his political invective, though given that the book was apparently a response to Alain de Botton’s cliche-ridden How Proust Can Change Your Life it is sad that it never came to be.

9/11 changed all that. Watching the towers fall, he told Jamie Glazov of Frontpage Magazine, he felt “exhilaration”:

Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. 

Some might have been tempted to ask who “we” were, given how little of the fighting Mr Hitchens would do, but the more pertinent question was, who “they” were. Al Qaeda? That would have been fair enough. Militant Islamism? I don’t like the phenomenon any more than anybody else does but it seems too large and diffuse a phenomenon to go to war against. “Tyranny” or “totalitarianism”? Same problem, only more so.

It would be churlish to deny that some of what Christopher Hitchens contributed to post-9/11 discourse was valuable. He was right to scorn the inverted Eurocentrism that sees Islamic radicalism only in the terms of grievance. But he was terribly wrong to make it his Orwellesque stand.

The attacks of 9/11 were a defining moment for commentators

The most prominent representative of antitheism, Hitchens was also a passionate moralist. What made him so inspiring as a commentator, especially to young men such as this author in his adolescence, was his firm conviction about what was righteous and what was sinful. He was, moreover, addicted to causes. As his friend Ian Buruma said, Hitchens was “always looking for the defining moment — as it were, our Spanish Civil War.” That his great hero, Orwell, returned from that war feeling less than inspired about the nature of the Republicans does not seem to have given Hitchens much pause for thought.

“We’re an empire now,” a Bush administration aide famously told Ron Suskind, “And when we act, we create our own reality.” One senses, in Christopher Hitchens’ work from that period, that he was subconsciously trying to will fantasies into being through the sheer force of his prose. “Defeat was impossible,” he announced in a November 2001 column called “Ha ha ha to the pacifists”, “The Taliban will soon be history.” Of course, hindsight is every commentator’s dear friend, but a sensible person should have grasped that knocking down the government of a poor, clannish, fiercely Islamic nation was a breeze compared to building and sustaining a new one. As Angus Colwell says, “rhetoric was king”.

On to Iraq. Saddam Hussein was evil, of course, as Mullah Omar had been, yet where did this fit into the “war to the finish”? The Baathists were regional thugs, not adventurist jihadis. As Stephen Lukes wrote in an impressively prescient March 2003 column:

World-roaming Wahhabi fanatics and the murderous, predatory dictatorship of Iraq have very different world views, purposes and interests…Impolitic US action could force a connection [because] attacking and overthrowing the Saddam regime carries with it the serious danger of inflaming the former.

So, sadly, it came to be, in a furious blaze of sectarian carnage. Hitchens did his best to talk up the radical qualities of Paul Wolfowitz, or the Washingtonian potential of Ahmed Chalabi, but he was whistling in a gale.

A problem, looking back, among many problems, was that 9/11 was not a defining moment. To say that runs the risk of insulting the dead, so I should clearly emphasise that it was a tragedy, and it was an atrocity, in which thousands of people lost their lives because of deranged theocratic cultism. It had obvious implications for foreign policy, and for immigration and social policy, as militant goons like ISIS and occasional horrific terrorist attacks in Europe continue to remind us. But it did not have the epochal geopolitical significance that it was assumed to have.

Commentators used 9/11 to keep framing the world as liberty versus totalitarianism

Liberalism was growing weak in subtler ways, at home and abroad. Internal disputes over matters such as migration and supranationalism, and “cold” rivalries with secular China and more-or-less secular Russia, loom larger in our minds than jihadis, as well as more transcendent matters such as environmentalism and pandemic risk. To the extent that militant Islam concerns us, it is generally at home, where it has been idly allowed to spread. Its most hideous foreign incarnation in 2021 is Boko Haram, in Nigeria, which is typically ignored because African conflicts are even more depressing to think about than South Asian and Middle Eastern ones.

Of course, jihadism could burst into the news again. My point is by no means to argue that it is a triviality. But the War on Terror was talked into being as if it was the historical successor of World War Two and the Cold War — conflicts that contrasted major geopolitical and ideological powers. Jihadists, for all of their morbid destructive potential, have neither the power nor the coherence for the same to be true. God forbid that one day an Al Qaedaesque organisation should get its hands on nuclear or biological weaponry, in which case it would of course top the order of the day, but preventing such occurrences depends more on smart intelligence and counter-insurgency work than Churchillian bombast and large-scale war. 

The attacks of 9/11 were a defining moment for thousands of families, of course, for obvious reasons, but they were also a defining moment for commentators who sought to prolong the twentieth century and its idealised conceptions of ideological conflict between the forces of liberty and the forces of totalitarianism. It was a defining moment for thinkers who sought to dramatise and moralise politics — an impulse that I question not because the attack was anything except the slaughter of good people by evil people but because what followed could not be explained so clearly. To the extent that its results defined the last two decades, and to such bleak effect, it has been substantially by choice. 

“The totalitarian,” wrote Hitchens, is “the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.” That is a neat phrase, in a career full of them. The problem is that Hitchens essentially gave them control of his head. For all the glittering essays that came afterwards, they defined him. 

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