Still Mistaken After All These Years: Hitchens from 9/11/11

by J.A. Myerson

What more fitting way of commemorating the events of 11 September 2001 could there be than picking a fight with an opponent with whom it is unwise to pick fights? After all, that is precisely what the nineteen men with box-cutters did that day and what the most powerful country in the history of the world has done again and again since. And on the print argument front, no opponent is as formidable as Christopher Hitchens, which is why his friend Richard Dawkins wisely counseled prospective antagonists, “If you are invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline.” Under normal circumstances, I would be glad to oblige Dawkins’ advice, but Hitchens’ latest misguided tome for Slate, “Simply evil: a decade after 9/11, it remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida” represents so generous an invitation, declining is an impossibility.

“Simply evil,” he calls al-Qaida, and anyone who has read his work before knows what is to follow. His best friend Martin Amis wrote of Hitchens, “his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child’s eager apprehension of what feels just and true.” And, lo and behold, framing Hitchens’ one-decade-on reflection is this contention: to “introduce complexity into the argument” about al-Qaida is in virtually every case the mark of a moral imbecile and a contemptible obscurantist, that really everything is simple.

This is arrant nonsense, and Hitchens’ glaring omissions suggest his insecurity in advancing this ridiculous notion. He concerns himself chiefly with denying the existence of “blowback,” which intelligence analyst Prof. Chalmers Johnson described as “a CIA term first used in March1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh inIran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of theUS government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.” The means by which Hitchens is able to dispatch the blowback explanation for 9/11 is a venerable one: he deliberately misunderstands it.

Christopher “simplifies” matters by conflating two distinct claims. The first claim, and the one that he rightly refutes, to the extent that anyone advances it, is that al-Qaida attacked America in righteous retribution forAmerica’s evil and exploitative foreign policy. The other, correct claim, and the one the Hitchens doesn’t touch lest it foil his argument, is that America’s evil and exploitative foreign policy has helped to create the conditions in the Islamic world for terrorism to flourish.

Let’s even leave alone America’s explicit project of fostering militarized political Islam as an antidote to secular leftist pan-Arabism during the Cold War. Even still, American imperial interests in the Middle East have driven (continue to drive) her military and intelligence arms to – among some other things – prop up dictatorships, rape the natural resources of the region (need I specify which?), infantilize civilian populations and cultivate a Middle Eastern corporatocracy that ensures widespread economic immiseration. Policies with effects such as these incur blowback, and Hitchens discredits himself by maintaining that the sole reason men become terrorists is a religious devotion. Clearly a religious devotion of an especially unpleasant sort is a requirement where people delve into the murky gutters of al-Qaida’s brand of violent extremism, but there is a reason that religious people in well-to-do democratic societies tend to avoid that fate – religion alone is insufficient to turn a believer into a suicide-murderer.

Of course, Hitchens contends that the mere notice of factors such as these brands one a fellow-traveller with fascism. “Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicably, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy.” Again here, Hitchens finds semblance where two ideas bear an orthogonal relationship, and he draws incorrect conclusions about both of them. References to blowback do not at all imply that America got her just deserts – he is wrong to say that they do – and such references do help us understand the ways in which the attacks are historically explicable – he is wrong to say that they don’t. Wrongness to the side, how can the distinction between these concepts escape the notice of someone with as much brain power as Hitchens commands?

Additionally, how can anyone wishing to be taken seriously by an intelligent audience posit that, for instance, reinforcing the Saudi royalty – the chief state perpetuator of Wahabbist and Salafist ideologies, the financier behind the Yemeni madrassas where AQAP officials receive training before heading to fight in Afghanistan – and Mubarak’s dictatorship – which kept a highly educated, largely urban, thriving civil society under the repressive bonds of martial law and an economic policy of corruption and theft – does not serve to encourage young middle-class Saudi and Egyptian professionals to join al-Qaida’s ranks? That is, after all, who constitutes the bulk of that dreadful organization, and not the bearded villagers of Afghanistan.

Hitchens suggests a third time that two different claims are actually affiliates of one another, and in this instance, it is even more difficult to take him seriously. Hitch depicts the explanation from blowback and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s explanation from theism – that the attacks were an instance of celestial baculine reprimand of a sinful country – as identical. How ridiculous, especially for Hitchens, who, to uphold his awful arguments about terrorism, will apparently eschew his superb ones about religion. Falwell and Robertson’s claim that 9/11 was an earned chastisement is generated by cynical medieval superstition and defies all analysis, the explanation that America’s exploitative dealings in the world propagated the conditions in which terrorism prospers is generated by a rigorous study of a well-attested phenomenon, knowledge of which was developed by the accruement of considerable evidence.

But Hitch will have none of it. “That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist ‘targets,’ was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali.” Never mind that al Qaida says what its attacks are for – including, almost always, an opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that Hitchens shares (this must be very uncomfortable for him). Likewise unaccounted for is why America, Britain, Spain and Turkey (all sometime members of the “Coalition of the Willing”) were targets of violently reactionary Islam, instead of, say, Brazil, the most libidinally licentious country in our hemisphere, or Canada, whose citizens are every bit as free as Hitchens or I. Either this is merely a coincidence or Hitchens’ thesis is pathetically incomplete.

It would be one thing if pathetically incomplete theses about the nature of and reasons behind the 9/11 attacks existed in isolation. But the managers of the empire crafted their response to the attacks based on those theses, and no one was a bigger, more effective or more eloquent cheerleader for that response than Hitch.

For him, 9/11 was the opening shot of a war between totalitarian theocracy and secular democracy, not an act of mass murder, perpetrated by nineteen men who were part of a small, loosely organized sect of terrorists, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 members large, that could be dealt with in the way terrorist attacks are customarily and successfully dealt with – by international police work, acts of subterfuge and the isolation and arrest of al-Qaida members, together with a redoubled effort to foster democratic operations in the countries of the Middle East. And so, Hitchens advocated for war after war after war. And, every time, he got his way, despite his self-pitying (and somehow simultaneously self-assumptive) implications that he is part of a vulnerable minority of people who think his way. If the United States had poured into forwarding the civic infrastructure, secular organizations and educational institutions of the Middle East anything like the amount of money it poured into the Pentagon, JSOC operations, the CIA and contracts with Christian-supremacist mercenary armies over the last decade, it could have sped up the Arab Awakening by a factor of years, been considerably better off militarily and in every other way avoided the disastrous effects of the now six-or-so wars in which this country is engaged.

What we see now in Afghanistan, a decade after our invasion and supplanting of the Taliban, is essentially a state of anarchy, with little beyond Kabul’s boarders controlled by the perfidious corporate crime syndicate we installed by way of a “secular democracy,” the rest of the country subject to the whims of rival warlords and tribal, religious and ethnic factions competing for dominance. August 2011, the month that ended mere days ago and the 119th of the war in Afghanistan, was the bloodiest for America, 66 more of whose soldiers now lie decomposing. Is this what victory looks like?

In Iraq, which, despite Hitchens’ desperate protestations to the contrary, has been proven conclusively not to have been connected to the attacks a decade ago, the last month has gratifyingly not been a sanguinary one for Americans, none of whom died then (the first such month since the invasion eight and a half years ago), but the society there is in tatters – an imperial protectorate rather than a free, independent state, and one in which an American troop presence of roughly 50,000 engaging in counter-terror and security missions is all that prevents the country from descending into a civil war. The country’s infrastructure has been so demolished that extensive protests over sporadic electricity and lack of potable water have recently consumed several major cities while Bagdhad’s tenuous government suffers from oppressive political gridlock.

And, in any case, that country was ruled by a despot emblematic of cruelty and nihilism, but not of theocracy and jihad. This is no mean point. Whatever associations Saddam Hussein had with shady religious fanatics, Iraqi society did not punish hudud crimes as though it were Saudi Arabia, for instance. Similarly, the resistance to American occupation among Iraqis has been greatly more diverse than suggests Hitchens, who has taken several occasions to describe it as exclusively composed of scum like those adherents of the fanatical preachings of Muqtada al-Sadr. As is common knowledge to any reasonable observer of affairs in Iraq during the first years after America’s invasion, the conquest’s opposition included many secular or moderate former members of the Iraqi military who had abandoned Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqis with whom coalition forces allied included many Shia radicals whom, under Saddam’s rule, America had financed and trained. A great many Iraqis – including democrats who might have been sympathetic to Hitchens’ aims in Iraq – became opponents of the occupation when its “humanitarian” character was revealed by incidents like those atNissour Square, Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. Can’t Christopher Hitchens see how that might happen?

And all this, Hitchens has bewilderingly maintained for the last decade, has been an admirable and effective counter to al-Qaida, notwithstanding his own admission that al-Qaida was destined to fall on its own. “Ten years ago I wrote to a despairing friend that a time would come when al-Qaida had been penetrated, when its own paranoia would devour it, when it had tried every tactic and failed to repeat its 9/11 coup, when it would fall victim to its own deluded worldview and—because it has no means of generating self-criticism—would begin to implode.” Such little faith Hitchens has in his own propositions, to argue that the trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives lost inAmerica’s post-9/11 Middle Eastern adventures were needed to help that inevitable implosion along.

The events of 2011 have surely shown us that the Arab world had it in itself all along to organize grassroots democratic revolutionary movements and did not require our imperial stewardship to find its own way out of the darkness. Indeed, far from expressing the adulation for the empire resembling the type that Hitchens so fervidly slobbers, the revolutionary Egyptian democrats I have spoken to hate American foreign policy – especially as regards Palestine – and al-Qaida considers our misadventure in Iraq a “gift,” as Saudi militant Khalid Suleiman, who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and wound up in Guantanamo for years, told NBC’s Richard Engel. The actual blow to al-Qaida came when Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia lit his body on fire and began a chain reaction of popular uprisings across the region that left al-Qaida struggling to argue for its own relevance, its raison d’etre as a candidate alternative to unacceptable Middle Eastern political affairs having burned up with that 23-year-old fruit vender.

Many of us on the left have long maintained that the democratic antithesis to dictatorship and especially theocracy in the Middle East would be the very types of incidents that make up the so-called “Arab Spring” (which name I object to). But for Hitchens, the catalyst for change that he has most vociferously pronounced sympathy and solidarity with has been theUS military. Squaring that new attitude with the lifetime he had spent exposing the nefariousness and mendacity of US imperial activity took quite a tortured sort of logic. Debating Tariq Ali atGeorgetown just half a year after the towers fell, Hitchens deployed this argument:

The United Statesis not the ideal exemplar of the things that we are charged to guard, forced to guard, don’t have the right not to guard against religious barbarians and religious fascists. TheUnited Statesdoes not embody secular values, it doesn’t embody the full emancipation of all minorities or the full equality of all confessions or the untrammeled spirit of free and scientific inquiry. It doesn’t yet or at all embody these, and nor is it yet a democratic republic in a free and equal community of similar states, but it does contain the seeds of this actualization, and so do we. So to place it or ourselves on a basis of moral equality with medieval and theocratic and fascistic delusions is unserious and it is indecent.

How Hitchens, the skeptic’s skeptic, could set aside his suspicions of American motives so easily because the US appears more closely to resemble the society he idealizes than, say, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, boggles the mind. In order to accept the assertion that America’s post-9/11 foreign policy wasn’t a neo-colonialist conspiracy but rather a defense of democratic values against theocratic totalitarianism, one would have to ignore the Saudi example. It is crystal clear that any Global War on Terror that sought actually to make war on terror would include a full scale ouster of the Saudi royalty. Why then did this not occur? Could it be because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were actually an ouster of those who, however repugnantly and with however much evil, stood in the way of US imperial hegemony in the region? Saudi Arabia gets a pass on its evil, its terrorism, its fascistic theocracy, its violations of international law, its human rights abuses, because it is a friend to Washington. Isn’t that simple enough for Christopher Hitchens? Hitchens’ acceptance of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” formulation, when he names “Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” as “evil” and omits the Saudi royalty speaks volumes. Saudi Arabiais an inconvenient thorn in the side of Hitchens’ theory; rather than adjust the theory, he simply elects to disregard the thorn.

Hitchens’ recalcitrance on so many of these rudimentary points gives the awful impression that he is intentionally ignoring the best arguments of his opponents. This means that his view on these matters has become rather more an article of faith than a rigorous analysis of the relevant evidence. And that, as we know from the man himself, poisons everything.