Replying to Hitchens

I have gotten a lot of mail asking me to react to Christopher Hitchens comments in the Nation magazine and on the Nation website. I am loathe to do so because I fear that considerable energies of wonderful people will go into worrying about precise wording of diverse entries in a back-and-forth battle of writers, instead of into the hard and worthy work that needs to be undertaken to prevent mass starvation in Afghanistan, to ward off military insanity around the region, and to obstruct and reverse a reactionary reorientation of mind and policy here in the U.S. But, so many have asked about Hitchens comments, that apparently silence won’t best reorient attention back where we all know it belongs.


Hitchens’ initial essay in the Nation rightly pointed out that the motives of those who planned the September 11 attack could not possibly have been to better the lot of suffering people, whether in the Mideast or any other part of the world. For one thing, such terrorism obviously worsens prospects horrendously for the poor and weak, particularly in the Mideast. For another thing, bin Laden’s self-stated motives revolve around toppling Middle Eastern governments and installing, instead, Taliban-like creations, not reducing injustice, of course. The attack was presumably to draw the U.S. into a massive retaliation, throwing the Middle East into turmoil. Both points have been made early and often by critics of Bush, most centrally the very person Hitchens attacks, Noam Chomsky (see interviews posted on ZNet, www.zmag.org). But to rightly assert that bin Laden’s own mindset and motives or those of Taliban leaders aren’t hatched from the pain and suffering inflicted by oppressive U.S. policies, doesn’t tell us that the networks of support for terrorism and even the harsh mindsets of enlistees in terror aren’t nourished by that broader context, of course.


In the September 15 issue of In These Times, Hitchens sensibly urged that “why questions” need to be asked, not solely “how questions.” He bemoaned that the range of permissible thought was allowing technicalities to be endlessly discussed, but was cutting off social and historical context. In Hitchens’ follow-up Nation piece, he does a turn-about implying that many opposing a U.S.-managed war on terrorism weren’t doing so because it would have horrific impact on innocent people, but instead out of ratification of or even sympathy for the terror attacks themselves. In the ITT piece, Hitchens wanted to enlarge the range of permissible thought. In the Nation piece, he attacked those who have succeeded in doing so. In ITT he celebrated anit-war activism. In the Nation he made unwarranted and unsubstantiated criticisms of anti-war activists–vulgar criticisms that he knows full well are false.


It shouldn’t be necessary to say, but of course there is no ratification or rationalization of terrorism in the words of the individuals Hitchens has attacked. To understand this most simply, suppose someone says that huge stress in a postal workplace contributed to the mindset of a worker who came in and shot his workmates. Would that correspond to saying the killer was justified in shooting his workmates? Of course not. Would it be an important thing to notice? Of course it would, assuming, that is, that one cares about diminishing the likelihood of people “going postal” in the future.


The analogy of terrorists to over-stressed workers going postal is far from perfect, admittedly, but it is instructive. To point out that injustice creates a context propelling some people toward supporting and even signing up to engage in terrorism is no more to justify terrorism than noting that stress creates a context leading to workplace violence is to justify workplace violence. When the people who point out the role of injustices in producing support for terrorism are long-time  fighters for justice all around the world, does it make an iota of sense to jump from their identification of a contributing contextual factor to asserting they were justifying the terror, against their entire life’s activities, even against their current activities and words? More broadly, rejecting the use of violence against civilians informs activists’ opposition to the war on terrorism and applies as well to the September 11 events, of course. Hitchens’ knows this. His claim that Chomsky, as well as Howard Zinn and Norman Finkelstein justified the terror was scurrilous and, of course, unsubstantiated since no substantiation was possible. I doubt it even crossed Hitchens’ mind to offer evidence. He knows there is none.


Now I suppose it may be that the Nation-Hitchens, unlike the ITT-Hitchens, thinks there is something unseemly, at a time when the U.S. president is talking about a long-term massive war, in bringing forward information bearing upon the likely implications of such policies including evidence that, rhetoric aside, our forays into militarism and even political punishment (as in embargoes) rarely if ever seriously concern themselves with matters of justice, including the plight of civilians–but I can’t see why Hitchens would feel that. Instead, aligning with the ITT-HItchens, it seems to me that the time to begin being critical of a proposed horrific policy and to begin offering evidence to raise broad social opposition to such a policy is before the horrible policy is implemented, which is now, of course.


Hitchens’ Nation piece apparently brought a bunch of outraged email his way. And this is where the story deteriorates greatly. He replied to his critics via a second essay, also placed on the Nation website. In his second Nation message Hitchens excoriates the motives of Sam Husseini and Noam Chomsky, again due to their going beyond the limits of permissible thought that Hitchens himself earlier bemoaned. It is hard for me to believe that Hitchens actually believes that Husseini, Chomsky, and others who are working as hard as they can to avert piling catastrophe on top of catastrophe, were or are “soft on fascism,” or any of the other epithets Hitchens hurled at them. If Hitchens doesn’t believe this, hopefully he will rescind his comments shortly and return to more productive activities. If against all evidence, logic, and his entire lifetime of political involvements, he does believe these things, then the time to worry about the process that brought about such a devolution of intelligence is probably much later. Now there are far more important matters to attend to.

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