You don’t have to agree with Christopher Hitchens on everything (certainly, I don’t on the Iraq war) to recognise him as a very serious and principled commentator, whose defence of basic principles of democracy, free speech and anti-racism is in marked contrast to much of the so-called “left” and the so-called “anti-imperialist” so-called “left” in particular. This was never more clearly illustrated than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In his 2010 autobiography, ‘Hitch-22’, he describes his reaction to being told by a student at Whitman College, Washington State, a day or so after the attack, that “You know what my friends are saying? They are saying it’s the chickens coming home to roost.”
I have always had a dislike for that rather fatuous and folkish expression, and this dislike now came welling up in me with an almost tidal force. (What bloody “chickens”? Come to think of it, whose bloody “home”? And, for Christ’s sake, what sort of “roost”?) And I could suddenly visualise, with an awful sickening certainty, what we were going to be getting by way of comment from Noam Chomsky and his co-thinkers in the coming days. This realisation helped me considerably in sorting out the discrepant and even discordant discussions that were taking place in my interior, and I soon enough sat down to write my regular column for The Nation. I titled it “Against Rationalisation.” I did not intend to be told, I said, that the people of the United States – who included those toiling in the Pentagon as well as all those, citizens and non-citizens, who had been immolated in Manhatten – had in any sense deserved this or brought it upon themselves. I also tried to give a name to the mirthless, medieval, death-obsessed barbarism that had so brazenly unmasked itself. It was, I said “fascism with an Islamic Face.” In this I attempted to annex Alexander Dubcek’s phrase about Czechoslovakia adopting “Socialism with a Human Face,” and also to echo Susan Sontag’s later ironic re-working, following the military coup in Poland, of the idea of Communism going the other way and degenerating into “Fascism with a Human Face.” Obviously, this concept is too baggy to be used every time, so I am occasionally “credited” with coining the unsatisfactory term “Islamofascism” instead.
Anyway, I didn’t have long to wait for my worst fears about the Left to prove correct. Comparing Al Quaeda’s use of stolen airplanes with President Clinton’s certainly atrocious use of cruise missiles against Sudan three years before (which were at least ostensibly directed at Al Quaeda targets), Noam Chomsky found the moral balance to be approximately even, with the United States at perhaps a slight disadvantage. he also described the potential civilian casualties of an American counterstroke in Afghanistan as amounting to “a silent genocide.” As time had elapsed, I had gradually been made aware that there was a deep division between Noam and myself. Highly critical as we both were of American foreign policy, the difference came down to this. Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with. Whereas I has slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to feel less and less shy about saying so. We commenced a duel, conducted largely in cyberspace, in which I began by pointing out the difference between unmanned cruise missiles on the one hand and crowded civilian airliners rammed into heavily populated buildings on the other. We more or less went from there.
Gore Vidal also, could hardly wait to go slumming. he took the earliest opportunity of claiming that, while Osama bin Laden had not been proved to be the evil genius of the attacks, it was by no means too early to allege that the Bush administration had played a hidden hand in them. Ot at least, if it had not actually instigated the assault, it had (as with Roosevelt at Pearl Harbor!) seen it coming and welcomed it as a pretext for engorging the defense budget and seizing the oilfields of the southern Caucasus. His articles featured half-baked citations from the most dismal, ignorant paranoids. President Bush had evidently forewarned himself of the air piracy in order that he he should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramous on worldwide TV. Vidal’s old antagonist Norman Mailer was largely at one with him on this, jauntily alleging that endless war was the only way to vindicate the drooping virility of the traditional white American male. Thus did the nation’s intelligensia, and a part of the mental universe of the New York Review of Books, show its readiness in a crisis. I thought I had to say a word for the fortitude that the rest of society was manifesting.
I had another motive that is perhaps plainer to me now than it was then. I could not bear the idea that anything I had written or said mayself had contributed to this mood of cynicism and defeatism, not to mention moral imbecility, on the Left. I did not want that young lady at Whitman College to waste her time drawing facile and masochistic conclusions. I had said all I could about American policy in South Africa and Chile (Salvadore Allende had been overthrown and murdered on another 11 September twenty-eight years before) but as I asked an audience in Georgetown in a later debate with Tariq Ali, could anyone imagine Mandela or Allende ordering their supporters to use civilian airliners to slaughter more civilians? Any comparison of that kind, or any extension of it to Vietnam, was – quite apart from anything else – viley insulting to the causes and struggles with which it was being compared.
More sound stuff on 9/11 from C. Hitchens, here