Dead at 62, Christopher Hitchens taught us how to live, and how to die

After his 2010 esophageal cancer diagnosis, Christopher Hitchens would explain to those who asked about his health that he was dying.

“But so are you,” he would add in typical Hitchens fashion. “I’m only doing it more rapidly.”

On Thursday at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Hitchens finally crossed the finish line, far too rapidly, at the age of 62.

The world has lost not only one of the finest polemicists and essayists of his era, but one of the brightest wits and clearest and most resolute voices against tyranny.

Many accused the British-born Hitchens, once anointed by Gore Vidal as “his successor, an inheritor, a dauphin,” of having drifted rightward politically in the aftermath the 9/11 terror attacks. After many of his comrades on the left blamed the United States instead of Islamist terrorists for the destruction wrought that day, Hitchens abandoned his column at the left-wing Nation magazine and ardently advocated for the West, led by the United States, to confront what he called “fascism with an Islamic face.”

“Amid all this chaos on various frontiers,” he wrote in his memoir “Hitch-22,” about how he felt after the 9/11 attacks, “what I increasingly thought was: thank whatever powers there may be for the power of the United States of America. Without that reserve strength, the sheer mass of its arsenal in combination with the innovative maneuvers of its special forces, the tyrants and riffraff of the world would possess an undeserved sense of impunity.”

But more than mere left or right, Hitchens was anti-totalitarian; even as a young Oxford radical, this impulse seemed to strongly resonate. Told during a trip to Castro’s Cuba that free speech was welcome in the communist oasis so long as it was not used to attack the “Leader of the Revolution,” Hitchens recoiled at the notion.

“If the most salient figure in the state and society was immune from critical comment,” he explained in his memoir, “then all the rest was detail.”

And it was Hitchens in debates and columns after 9/11, as much as or more than anyone else, who provided the intellectual and moral foundation for America’s war against Islamist-inspired terror.

“If you want to avoid upsetting these people you have to let Indonesia commit genocide in East Timor, otherwise they’ll be upset with you. You’ll have made an enemy,” he bellowed at a questioner who dared blame the West for instigating the terror threat against it.

“If you tell them they can’t throw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Karachi, they will be annoyed with you,” Hitchens continued. “If you say we insist — we think cartoonists in Copenhagen can print satire on the Prophet Muhammad — you’ve just made an enemy. You’ve brought it on. You’re encouraging it to happen.”

Hitchens would have none of it.

“So unless you are willing to commit suicide for yourself and for this culture, get used to the compromises you will have to make and the eventual capitulation that will come to you,” he went on. “But bloody well don’t do that in my name because I’m not doing it. You surrender in your own name. Leave me out of it.”