by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve, 448 pp.,$26.99
On September 10, 2001, Christopher Hitchens woke up early and boarded a flight for Seattle. The day went swimmingly. He was upgraded at the airport, enjoyed a good book on the plane, and occasionally glanced out his airplane window to enjoy the glorious American scenery below.
What’s more, he was excited to land in Washington state and deliver a paid speech that evening at Whitman College in Walla Walla attacking one of his least favorite people, Henry Kissinger. He even carried with him a scoop to share with the audience. He had learned that the next day the family of a murdered Chilean general would be permitted to file suit against the former U.S. Secretary of State in federal court and the Washington Post would even feature the story on its front page.
“So, comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, we shall be able to say,” Hitchens concluded his speech, as he recounts in his recently released memoir “Hitch 22:” “September 11, 2001 will long be remembered as a landmark day in the struggle for human rights.”
September 11, 2001 did indeed become a historic day. But not in the way Hitchens had imagined the day before.
Throughout “Hitch 22,” readers learn many new details about the contentious British-born polemicist and essayist — from the parents that reared him to his activist Oxford days to his deep friendships with some the most celebrated men of letters — but Hitchens’s political journey after the 9/11 attacks is one of the most captivating parts of his tome.
Before September 11, Hitchens was idealized on the left. Gore Vidal had anointed him “his successor, an inheritor, a dauphin.”
But 9/11 changed things for Hitchens as he witnessed his old comrades justify the brutal attacks on America. America may have had its faults, but Hitchens didn’t believe it deserved what it got on that calm September morn.
“Before the close of the day,” Hitchens writes, “I had deliberately violated the rule that one ought not to let the sun set on one’s anger, and had sworn a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to the most strict and merciless account.”
Soon after the towers fell, Hitchens writes he “could suddenly visualize, with an awful and sickening certainty, what we were going to be getting by way of comment from Noam Chomsky and his co-thinkers in the coming days.”
As Hitchens witnessed many of his old ideological colleagues proffer the morally repugnant line that America got what it deserved, he knew he could not stand with them.
“Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts,” Hitchens writes of the MIT linguist and left-wing polemicist Noam Chomsky, the lead promoter of the chickens coming home to roost thesis of the 9/11 attacks, “he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with.”
Hitchens, however, “had slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to feel less and less shy about saying so.”
Soon he abandoned his column at the Nation magazine. In the months and years to come, Hitchens would become the clearest and most resolute voice demanding the West, led by the United States, confront what he termed “fascism with an Islamic face.” And he came to appreciate the importance of American military might in the international chaos that followed the 9/11 attacks.
“Amid all this chaos on various frontiers,” Hitchens writes, “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.”
As al-Qaeda was “being taught to take heavy casualties as well as inflict them,” Hitchens had no problem with American power being brought to bear against what he clearly saw as an unabashed evil. “I was not against this,” he writes.
Soon after his break from his old ideological allies, having lived in America since the 1980s but never having become an American citizen, Hitchens began to feel that he was “cheating on my dues.” And because Hitchens wasn’t just an ordinary American immigrant seeking to become a citizen, he was able to arrange that his citizenship ceremony be conducted at the tidal basin of the Jefferson Memorial by Department of Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff himself.
“[H]uman history affords no precedent or parallel for this attainment,” Hitchens writes of becoming an American.
In interviews since the book’s release, Hitchens has derided the narrative that he had an ideological conversion after 9/11. But whether he left the left or the left left him, those of us who see the danger of Islamist terrorism as one of the greatest threats and moral evils of our time should thank their lucky stars that we have such an articulate voice on our side.
In a cruel twist of fate, soon after “Hitch 22” was released, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, one of the deadliest kinds and one he recognizes could very well steal his life. Whether one stands with Hitchens in all his various political battles or not, it must be recognized that on the most important issues confronting Western civilization today, Hitchens has taken bold and decisive stands. At worst, he has provided clear counterarguments that have made us all reevaluate our own positions and either change them or buttress them to try to withstand his assaults of logic. At best, he has been at the forefront defending freedom and Enlightenment values from attacks by Neanderthals who wish to plunge the Western world back into a dark, dangerous and distasteful place.
Which is to say that at his worst he is indispensable to public discourse and at his best heroic in summoning the arguments and moral resolution necessary to stand up to the dire challenges America and the Western world face today.
This is not at all a bad legacy to have. Let’s hope – and, yes, pray — Mr. Hitchens sticks around with us a great deal longer to continue it and provide us a sequel to his remarkable memoir.