Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hitchens on September 11, 2001

Excerpt from Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens

Very early next morning my wife, Carol, had me lifting the phone before I could quite appreciate the fact. From the East Coast, she had a three-hour time-zone advantage. “If you turn on the TV,” she said with her not-unknown dryness and economy, “you may find that the war-crimes trial of Henry Kissinger has been slightly postponed.” I found a remote-control device, which gave me the Weather Channel as such things always do, but even the Weather Channel had the “breaking” story. 

“Breaking” was about right. I felt myself rending internally as I was forced to watch—that’s how it felt, as with being made to witness a torture or an execution—the scenes I don’t have to describe to you. Or perhaps you will forgive me one exception to that resolution. As I saw the first of the towers begin to dissolve and lose its shape and outline, I was alerted to what was imminent by the abrupt sinking and sagging of the big antenna on the roof. I can only phrase this by saying that I was very suddenly and very overwhelmingly actuated by pity. I know that this is the pathetic fallacy at work and I dare say I knew it then, but it was like watching the mute last moments of a dying elephant, say, or perhaps a whale. At any rate, the next emotion I felt was a rush of protectiveness, as if something vulnerable required my succor. Vulnerable? This commercial behemoth at the heart of an often-callous empire? Well, yes, at the risk of embarrassment. And my protective feelings were further engaged and enlisted as, on this most faultless of September days, the whole southern tip of Manhattan was suddenly engulfed in a rolling, boiling cloud of filth that blotted out the sun. And in that filth was contained the pulverized remnant of many of my fellow creatures. In a first-reaction report I wrote that it was as if Charles Manson had been made god for a day.

More Mansonism was in store. My hometown was under attack as well. The next time Carol called, she wasn’t quite so wry and detached. The Defense Department was on fire. She could not get across town to collect our daughter, who had just been dropped at school. Chaos was official. There were hysterical and false reports of explosions near the White House and the State Department. The wonderful spaces and distances of America feel fractionally less glorious when a husband and father is on the wrong side of the Continental Divide and can’t do a thing. It transpired that, if not for the gallant action of the passengers on United Flight 93, and the traditional tardiness of air-traffic control at Newark Airport, which gave those heroes and heroines their time lag, another plane would have gone sailing through the blue of that day, arrowing right behind the coiffed heads of the TV newscasters, and burst into a gorgeous ball of red and yellow and black against the dome of the Capitol. From an early age, I had dreamed of Manhattan and identified it with breadth of mind, with liberty, with opportunity. Now it seemed that there were those who, from across the sea, had also been fantasizing about my longed-for city. But fantasizing about hurting it, maiming it, disfiguring it, and bringing it crashing to the ground. “Let it come down!” as the first murderer says in Macbeth, expressing in those four words a whole skullful of nihilism and resentment.

Before the close of that day, I had deliberately violated the rule that one ought not to let the sun set on one’s anger, and had sworn a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to a most strict and merciless account.

And what of my other adopted city? How often had I laughed or even sneered at Washington, sometimes saying (echoing a smart friend) that it was New York’s nicest suburb, and at other times mocking it in various tones as “provincial” or a “company town.” Should I now also feel protective about that other behemoth, the Pentagon? Well, into its outer walls had been flown a nice acquaintance of mine, a feisty Republican lady named Barbara Olson. She had managed to get her husband on her cellphone to say she had been hijacked, and to him had fallen the task of telling her that she was mistaken about that. She was not a hostage. There were not going to be any “demands.” She was to be murdered in order that others, too, might die. As I tried to picture her reaction, I hit a barrier that my imagination was unable to cross. Also, when you have seen the Pentagon still smoldering across the river, from the roof of your own apartment building, you are liable to undergo an abrupt shift of perspective that qualifies any nostalgia for Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” or Allen Ginsberg’s quixotic attempt to levitate the building. In his book The Company of Critics the Social Democratic intellectual Michael Walzer says that most of his friends and colleagues have never even visited Washington except to protest. I was to find this thought, about the mentality of America’s intellectuals, recurring to me as the days went by, but meanwhile my feeling for the city became distinctly more tender, and I began to value more what I had become used to taking for granted: the openness and greenery, the nexus of friends and contacts, the wonderful museums and galleries and concert halls, the two Shakespeare theaters, and the way that one could walk right up to the railings of the White House.

And then another filthy miasma arrived, this time in the form of anthrax spores stuffed into envelopes. A well-liked mailman on our route was one of the casualties, and our downstairs mailroom was briefly closed. This is the sort of phenomenon that breeds paranoia and hatred and fear, yet I was above all struck, throughout that month, by the calm and dignity with which New Yorkers and Washingtonians were conducting themselves. Every now and then, some nervous official would broadcast an appeal to people NOT to go and launch random attacks on Arab-run groceries or local mosques; these appeals grated on me as being superfluous and patronizing. There were a very few abject morons out in the boondocks who summoned the courage to attack anyone wearing a turban—they usually managed to pick Sikhs or Tibetans—but this was hardly a police-blotter blip.

Two things began to contend for mastery in my head. At first, I was most afraid of an orgiastic flag-waving unanimity, in which the press and media would congeal into an uncritical mass, as if “we” all lived in a one-party consensus. But then a chance encounter crystallized quite another fear. I was still stuck out at Whitman College, waiting for the airports to reopen, and went into a store to buy some overnight supplies. I was approached by a young woman who had been at my Kissinger lecture, and we chatted briefly about it before turning to the inescapable topic. “You know what my friends are saying?” she inquired. “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 visualize, with an awful and 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 realization 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 Rationalization.” I did not intend to be told, I said, that the people of the United States—who included all those toiling in the Pentagon as well as all those, citizens and non-citizens, who had been immolated in Manhattan—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 Dub ek’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 had 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 on 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. Or 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 should seize the chance to look like a craven, whey-faced ignoramus 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 intelligentsia, 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 myself 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 (Salvador 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—vilely insulting to the causes and struggles with which it was being compared. 

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