Hitchens Destroys Straw Man?

Christopher HitchensAs I was watching Jane Siberry videos, YouTube recommended one named Galloway tries to justify 9/11 and gets destroyed by Hitchens. I don’t off hand know who Galloway is, but I get the picture. Did he “justify” 9/11? Who knows? He may have just tried to explain why it happened. To the neocon crowd, there is no distinction between the two. And I’m sure that Christopher Hitchens’ argument would be the same either way. Hitchens was a brilliant man, but to say that he had a huge blind spot when it came to these issues, is a great understatement. What’s more, it was clear in the last decade of his life that he was a racist. The fact that many humanist to this day hold him in high esteem is mind boggling.

But very briefly, I want to take on the case. No reasonable person would ever justify 9/11. And I have no clear memory of ever hearing anyone justify it. But too many people in the United States want to claim that 9/11 is simply the work of fanatics and it had nothing to do with our policies. And these very same people support our blanket killing program. We kill people in Afghanistan based upon suspicious behavior that has never been explained to the American people. And I’m sure that in 50 years when the documents that explain what constitutes such suspicious behavior are released, we will learn that it is a lot of generic stuff that doubtless killed far more innocents than anyone else.

My point is that of course 9/11 is an indefensible attack on innocent people. But our nation has also been in the business of killing innocent people all over the world for my entire lifetime. That too is indefensible. And 9/11 does not give us just cause to kill innocent people. There is never just cause for killing innocent people. And regardless, we were killing innocent people long before 9/11.

The funny thing is that pre-9/11 Christopher Hitchens understood this. And he never repudiated his old opinions. So he could kind of get away with claiming that our bombing campaigns were based upon the “war” started on 9/11. But most people have the same opinions both before and after 9/11. So the question is where do these people stand? Either it was okay for the terrorist to attack us on 9/11 or our many acts of modern warfare on civilian populations were wrong. For me, it is very clear: they are both wrong. But sadly, for most Americans and almost all conservatives, any act of aggression is right as long as we are the aggressors.

So I just watched the beginning of the video and it does appear that Galloway is not saying that the 9/11 attacks were justified. He’s only saying they didn’t come about in a vacuum. But I can’t watch any more because after saying that, the audience started going crazy. An individual has no problem understanding that a pedestrian crossing against the light does not justify a motorist running him down; but it does at least partly explain it. Put a hundred people together and they can’t understand the distinction. Apparently, they think the only way we can have moral authority is if our hands are completely clean. When people think like this, they never mature. The same is true for societies.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Hitchens Destroys Straw Man?

  1. So if I try to discover the causes of cancer, I’m "on the side" of malignant cells?

    Hitchens’s great skill as a writer was his ability to construct an argument. However, as one of his heroes (and one of mine) Orwell often observed, once you have assumptions in your head you can’t question, it seeps over into the rest of your thinking. There’s no such thing as being intellectually independent when part of your mind is cordoned off with a "no trespassing" sign. The rest doesn’t function as efficiently as it could, or did before. This is pretty clear from Hitchens’s latter-day work.

    Stories of how people sell their souls always fascinate me in a masochistic way, and I’ve read a bit about Hitchens from the point of view of both friends and former friends. By all accounts, Hitchens was an exceedingly kind and generous person to have on your side. So that’s why humanists revere him, I think; many knew him, and he was a terrific guy. To them.

    Not so much to others. Here’s a classic from Dave Zirin, if I haven’t linked to it before:


    I miss the old Hitchens, and Vidal, and David Rakoff. There’s a place for furiously acerbic cultural critics. Sometimes, you want serious analysis, and sometimes you just want the bastards plastered to the wall. ("Idiot America" was both, nice rec.)

  2. @JMF – Thanks for the link. That’s a wonderful piece. I’m also struck: Hitchen was still pushing WMD in 2005?! Wow.

    I think he was a man who could not admit error. Over time, his arguments became more strained. He must have known that the work was getting harder. He must have noticed that the other side was getting the best of the argument. And he must have noticed that the arguments made against his position were the same arguments he had made about wars before 9/11.

    I see that he was a good friend. Stephen Fry has talked about that. Hitchens’ strong support of gay rights always struck me as infused with that friendship (though probably others as well).

    But I’m not so much talking about his friends. It is more introductions to atheist books by people who surely knew him, but had if anything professional relationships. I think they treat Hitchens like most people do the Bible: they take the parts they like.

    As for me, it pollutes all his work. It would be different if he flirted with fascism but came at least to question it. The thing about writers like Hitchens is that they really have to be right all the time. You can’t be a forceful polemicist making these extremely circuitous arguments. Imperial war in Nicaragua is completely wrong but imperial war in Iraq is completely right? And it makes me think there was nothing much behind either position other than his enormous ego.

    But I’ll admit, he was fun to read.

  3. Admitting error is the key. Which are the people whose judgment you trust more? The ones who explain, at length, how all their errors are someone else’s fault? Or the ones who tell stories about fucking up royally, and learning something from the experience?

  4. @JMF – Absolutely. But that wasn’t Hitchens ever. Fundamentally, Hitchens was the kid who learned very early that he had a gift for language and used it. Self reflection was not his style. I don’t mean that as a slight. I think that I suffer from too much self reflection. It can get in the way.

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