By Luke Brinker
Corey Robin lambastes the late Christopher Hitchens as a vile narcissist who helped foster the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rejecting liberals’ claims that Hitchens may have erred in supporting the invasion of Iraq but that he was otherwise an astute thinker, Robin writes:
First, Hitchens wasn’t just wrong on Iraq; he was wrong on the war on terror. As soon as 9/11 happened, Hitchens saw in the limited counter-terrorism effort against Al Qaeda a civilizational war against “Islamofascism.” The mere fact that I use the word “effort” is the kind of thing that would have sent him—and for a time, a great many others—into a rage. But in the end, that’s all the war on terror is—increasingly, was—and it is to his (though not only his) lasting shame that he ever saw, and longed to see, more in it than that.
Second, the problem isn’t just that Hitchens was wrong on Iraq and the war on terror; it’s how he was wrong. As I showed in my previous post, Hitchens’s words betrayed—actually, since he made no secret of it, displayed seems the more appropriate word—a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation, that are disturbing and frightening. What’s more, he included these feelings among his reasons for wanting to fight the war on terror.
Some might consider such confessions honest and brave. They are not. What’s honest and brave is to acknowledge these feelings in oneself and to seek to curb their influence on one’s reasoning. Not celebrating them, in the vein of politicians and propagandists in 1914 who sent men to die in vain. Hitchens’s is not the voice of the Enlightenment; it’s the voice of the men who brought that dream to an end, when they welcomed the bloodbath of the First World War as a relief from the tedium and boredom they had evidently been suffering from throughout the long nineteenth century.
Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.
I’ll preface my response by owning up to being an Iraq War opponent who thinks Hitchens was wrong on the war but that his error doesn’t outweigh his virtues as a literary, cultural, and political critic. While I disagreed with Hitchens’s advocacy of the Iraq campaign, I strongly object to Robin’s effort to tie Hitchens to “a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about … the facts of war.” Hitchens was neither a down-the-line supporter of every method employed in the war against terrorism nor, as Robin implies, an anti-Muslim bigot. (Hitchens hated all religion.)
Hitchens’s rhetoric inveighing against “Islamofascism” was overblown, but he was far from an apologist for each Bush-Obama tactic in the war on terrorism. He stood against the Bush administration’s violation of Fourth Amendment rights by becoming a plaintiff in the ACLU’s suit against the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. After undergoing the procedure himself, he denounced waterboarding as torture. Robin would have us believe that Hitchens enabled Bush’s abuses of power in the war on terror, but Hitchens stood against the administration’s worst excesses.
And what of Robin’s slanderous charge that Hitchens displayed a contemptible “cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and and apocalyptic confrontation”? Here, Robin attempts to portray Hitchens as an anti-Arab racist who thought “jihadists” got what they had coming. But while Hitchens vehemently opposed Islam, as he did all religion, he showed sympathy for secular Arab nationalism. Indeed, he was a sharp critic of Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians and a longtime advocate of a Palestinian state, even after his supposed post-9/11 transformation. Was Hitchens too cavalier about the real-life consequences of the wars he championed as grand ideological crusades? Yes, but to suggest that he was motivated by malice and bigotry is repugnant.
Finally, I’ll note that while Robin tries to come across as too wedded to his anti-war principles to laud such a vulgar warmonger, it wasn’t beneath Jane Mayer, an intrepid investigative journalist who has uncovered many war on terror abuses, to pen an affecting tribute to her deceased friend Hitchens. Robin paints Hitchens as Manichean and provincial, but it is Robin himself who appears pitifully Manichean in his critique of Hitchens.