There On The Sad Height

Writing in The Guardian, journalist Andrew Anthony has just published a recent interview with Christopher Hitchens — who though ravaged by cancer refuses to go gentle, and whose words still fork some lightning.

An excerpt:

“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness. Amazing. My conservative friends look at me and say, ‘Welcome to the club. What took you so long?’ Well that’s what it took and I think it’s worth recording.”

The hinge events, of course, were the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. He had previously held positions that were unpopular on the left – preferring the British government to the Argentinian fascist junta during the Falklands conflict, and calling for American intervention to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia – but his support for the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan proved to be a step too far for his anti-imperialist comrades.

Hitchens genuinely believes radical or jihadist Islam to be an existential threat to civilisation. First because it is a pronounced enemy of free speech and social liberty and has succeeded in intimidating and silencing civilians across “an extraordinary number of countries in Europe” and the rest of the world. And second, he says, “because it has potential access to weapons of mass destruction.” In the end, he argues, there are no pain-free options. You have to choose which future regret you’re going to have.

“I was at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut about two and a half years ago,” he says. “Very striking. Everyone should go. But of the many things that impressed me about it, having the mushroom cloud as the party flag in an election campaign was the main one. You wouldn’t want to look back and think, I wish I’d noticed that being run up. Now I can give you all the reasons that it’s bombast on their part. Still, I know which regret I’d rather have.”

There appear to be two main criticisms of this stance. Either people think he’s a bonkers Islamophobe – though many who do were content enough to leave Muslims to their bloody fate in Bosnia – or they believe such antagonistic talk only serves to create the problem it seeks to prevent. Hitchens is contemptuous of the former, but scathing of the latter. He says that those who tell him to tread more softly believe that the price of not doing so is more violence. “Oh I see, so you’re always aware when you’re contesting the holders of this view of the threat that lies behind it? Would you care for their opinions if it wasn’t for that? Or are you telling me you’d be reading their stuff just for the sheer pleasure of it. I don’t think so. If you say that this looks like war, you’re accused of liking it. Not true. Demonstrably not true.”

Demonstrably? Certainly he can sound like he enjoys the conflict. He has said that he experienced “a feeling of exhilaration” while watching the World Trade Centre collapse on 11 September. “Here we are then,” he later recalled thinking, “in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.”

Read the interview here.

Also: despite his illness, Mr. Hitchens appeared on stage in New York a month ago to debate Hassan al-Banna’s grandson, Tariq Ramadan, on the topic “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” I’ve just found that a webcast of the debate is available online, for a fee of $1.95, here.

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