Is Christopher Hitchens Forgivable?

Remembering the controversial writer for more than his opinions

Christopher Hitchens never really shied from speaking ill of the dead. So it wasn’t really a surprise when—amidst all the hagiography following his own demise Friday—more than a few anti-war writers decided to rhetorically spit on Hitch’s still-warm body, not giving up the grudges created by his vituperative advocacy of the Iraq War.

“Unforgivable!” Gawker screamed.

“Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life,” Glenn Greenwald charged at Salon.

“The popular American mass media will make room for even a booze-swilling atheist Trotskyite if he’s shilling for the latest war,” added Alex Pareene.

As someone who vehemently disagreed with Hitchens on Iraq, but was nonetheless saddened by his passing, I feel compelled to add a “Yes, but…”

Understand: The Iraq War was a disaster—both for Iraq and for the United States. George W. Bush was possibly the worst president in American history. We never should have invaded, and even though the war is technically over we’ll be paying for it for decades. Hitchens supported the war long past its sell-by date—a mark against him, yes, along with his sexism and bullying. (And we won’t even count his dogmatic atheism, the relentlessness of which left even confirmed agnostics like myself somewhat alienated)

But there are two points that must be made. First: The Iraq War was going to happen whether or not Hitchens pounded the drum for it. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Bill Kristol and a whole crew of officials and pundits were itching for an excuse to invade; Hitchens’ support was useful, but it wasn’t critical. The tone of some recent criticism makes it sound as though he was linchpin of public support for the war, and that he bears Goebbelslike responsibility for the results. No. (Why does Hitchens get a pass and not Kristol, a magazine editor? Because Hitchens was a mere writer; Kristol, it can be argued, helped orchestrate the war.)

Second: Hitchens was more than the sum of his many or most egregious faults.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence against Salman Rushdie for writing “The Satanic Verses,” Hitchens led the defense of his friend and (quite properly) criticized other writers and officials who were going squishy on the topic.

When the Bush Administration and its allies tried to pretend that the waterboarding of terrorists wasn’t torture, Hitchens demonstrated their untruthfulness with a clarity unmatched by few journalists. “If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” he wrote, “then there is no such thing as torture.”

And of course, it was Hitchens—more than any other journalist—who hounded Henry Kissinger for his crimes against democracy and humanity, and helped cement the former secretary of state’s reputation as the semi-pariah he so richly deserves to be. Even taking into account his evangelistic atheism, Hitchens’ overall body of work is—aside from its striking style and slashing wit—properly understood as antitotalitarian.

It’s that impulse—twisted, perhaps—that allows us to understand Hitchenspost-9/11 glee for the crusade againstIslamofascism.” The attacks on the Twin Towers sprang from roughly the same theology and impulses as the death sentence against his friend, Rushdie. Of course it looked like a battle that needed to be joined! And though it was wrong, stupid, and (above all) incorrect to link Iraq to 9/11, Saddam Hussein was a bloodthirsty, vicious tyrant. Hitchens believed George W. Bush and his regime were morally superior, even in Iraq. If you’re inclined to disagree, consider this: It didn’t take an invasion to remove Bush from power.

Unlike the cynical neo-imperialists who saw Iraq as a place to plant the American flag, then, Hitchens seemed to really think he was rooting against people who threatened our liberal, Western way of life. Unfortunately, that blinded him to the very real consequences of the fight he urged.

That can’t be forgotten. But despite his mistakes, I can’t help but feel melancholy at his passing. Christopher Hitchens was infuriating, arrogant, and essential. Beyond the rightness or wrongness of his stances, it feels very much like the culture is poorer without him. Many of his rivals even agree—especially, if bewilderingly, the Christians he so routinely mocked and attacked.

A California friend of mine spent Friday filling his Twitter feed with a list of Hitchens’ sins. It was a tough list to defend, I acknowledged: Perhaps I liked the idea of Hitchens more than the man himself?

“He was a character,” my friend responded, perhaps grudgingly. “An epic polemicist. A firebrand and a gadfly. We need more of those.” Amen.