Callinicos weighs in (on Hitchens)

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Oct 8 18:08:24 PDT 2001

From: Sebastian Budgen <sebastian at>


Christopher Hitchens has in the past two decades established himself as one of the finest writers of the left in the English speaking world. It is, therefore, nothing short of tragic to see him, in his polemic with Noam Chomsky and others over how the left should respond to the atrocities of 11 September, descend into a repellent mixture of casuistry, moral blackmail, and law-and-order ranting.

Hitchens's declaration of solidarity with George W. Bush rests on three propositions:

(1) What happened on 11 September was a wicked crime; (2) It is morally disreputable to compare it with the crimes committed by the US government; (3) It is equally disreputable to seek to trace the causes of this crime.

(1) is of course indisputable. Hitchens's prose gains such power as it possesses from his constant efforts to remind us of the enormity of the events of 11 September. But the aim of his bullying rhetoric appears to be to stop us thinking calmly about their significance. But, having discovered (or, perhaps better, been reminded) that we live in a world where such things can happen, we need calm thought more than just about anything. Hitchens's articles are the literary equivalent of shouting, apparently intended to drown out such thinking. If only for this reason, they are as morally and intellectually sleazy as anything he attributes to others.

When we ignore the shouting and try to think things through, we confront the issues that Hitchens's proposition (2) seeks to shut down. For very many people in the South, and quite a few in the North, any attempt to weigh up 11 September are led to compare it to other atrocities - most notably those that flow from Anglo-American policy, particularly, but not solely, in the Middle East. Now Hitchens wants to ban such comparisons. The reason he gives in his latest reply to Chomsky is that what he acknowledges to be crimes such as the cruise missile attacks on the Sudan in 1998 aren't of the same order of moral turpitude as the atrocities committed against Manhattan and Washington. The Clinton administration did not intend thousands of Sudanese to die when it ordered the destruction of the country's main pharmaceutical factory, even though these deaths were the consequence of this action, while the suicide bombers of 11 September consciously sought the mass killings they caused.

This doctrine makes it very hard to judge the atrocities of the past century. For those are composed, probably in equal measure, of planned and organized massacres and preventable mass deaths caused by bureaucratic callousness and negligence. For example, despite the efforts of Robert Conquest to prove the contrary, I doubt if Stalin actually intended that the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture would lead to several millions dying in the Great Famine of the early 1930s. These deaths were, nevertheless, the predictable result of the measures Stalin ordered, and they represent, I would say, his greatest crime and one of the outstanding atrocities of the 20th century. But, for Hitchens, the holocaust in which millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants died is presumably less worthy of condemnation than the Great Terror of the late 1930s, when the Cheka put yet more millions to death of the orders of the Politburo.

The issue is an important one because the preferred method of Anglo-American warfare since Napoleonic times has been bombardment and blockade rather than direct combat. Often the larger number of the victims of this method are not the intended target but - as the Pentagon likes to put it - collateral damage. For those waging war in this way, many of the deaths they inflict are a regrettable but unavoidable by-product of their strategy, a kind of overhead cost of pursuing the right policy. Madeleine Albright's notorious comment that bringing down Saddam Hussein was 'worth Š the price' of half a million Iraqi children's deaths exactly sums up this kind of obscene accounting. Sure, Clinton didn't want to take thousands of innocent lives when he ordered the missile attacks on Sudan. He wanted stave off impeachment and to hit bid Laden. But he took those lives all the same: their effacement was a predictable consequence of their actions. Hitchens's last book was a splendid indictment of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal: what was that all about if not holding the wielders of state power accountable for such consequences?

Drawing such comparisons is necessary in order to set the atrocities of 11 September in their context and thus to begin to explain them. But Hitchens's proposition (3) is indeed to block any move from judgement to explanation. His thought seems to be that the crime is so great that explanation is unnecessary: all that is called for is support for the posse that his President is rounding up to catch or kill the perpetrators. But this just seems terribly wrong. The point of trying to understand the causes of a crime is to help prevent its recurrence. Does Hitchens really believe that killing bin Laden and his associates (assuming that they are indeed responsible for 11 September) will bring terrorism to an end?

It is the awareness that seeking retribution is likely at best to be ineffective, at worst to intensify the hatred of the United States that is already widespread in the world and thereby to encourage yet more and perhaps worse acts of terrorism that informs the growing unease about, if not outright opposition to a Western military response. The irrelevance of retribution is so obvious that even Tony Blair had to promise the Labour Party conference the other day that the Bush coalition will root out global injustice as well as seek vengeance for 11 September. This promise must have caused great surprise in the White House, but it should also have provoked outrage in the Hitchens household. From Hitchens's vengeful perspective, even the apostle of the Third Way shows dangerous signs of getting - rhetorically at least - all mushy and liberal.

Reflection on the causes of 11 September further undermines Hitchens's case because of the harsh light it throws on his preferred agents of retribution. Let's suppose that bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida were indeed responsible for the attacks on Manhattan and Washington. As Hitchens himself acknowledges, the briefest trawl around the Internet will produce masses of material revealing the links connecting this network to Washington and its allies, dating back of course to the role of the CIA in funding, arming, and organizing the Islamist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan but embracing also the role of the Saudi elites and Pakistani military intelligence in backing bin Laden and his allies in the Taliban. Why is the Bush administration treating so gingerly if not for fear that an indiscriminate military response will subvert key allies such as the Pakistani, Saudi, and Egyptian dictatorships? But a more 'targeted' attack is likely to involve precisely the murky network of intelligence agencies and special-forces operators that first released the genie of Islamic terrorism from the bottle. Does Hitchens really believe that the CIA and the Pentagon, along with their British askaris in MI6 and the SAS, will not, in destroying bin Laden, unleash yet more murderous forces to haunt our future? If he does, he's a lot more naïve that his knowing prose lets on.

Defending his government's promise to get tough on crime back in the early 1990s, the then British Tory prime minister John Major said: 'We must understand less and condemn more.' Understanding wasn't in any case an option for poor Major, but it is for Hitchens. Some of his best work has been devoted to exposing the ways in which Establishment intellectuals have mentally subordinated themselves to the demands of Western raison d'Etat: I have in mind especially the superb essay in which he revealed Isaiah Berlin's complicity in the crimes of the American state during the Kennedy-Johnson era. But Hitchens now seems also - much more noisily and aggressively than the prudent and politick Berlin - to be placing his brain and his pen at the command of the Empire. From a critic of power he is becoming one of its mere servants. This melancholy spectacle should not stop us rallying the widest possible coalition against the coming war.

Alex Callinicos 5 October 2001 atc1 at

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