The Peach State prepares for a political frenzy as a pair of January runoffs determine the balance of the Senate—and the shape of the presidency
On a weekly basis Christopher Hitchens sits down to a keyboard in Washington to write 1,000 words or so in support of the president's war on terror. He has debated the topic with film director Oliver Stone, Hardball's Chris Matthews, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole, Georgetown Middle East expert John Esposito, and others. On a daily basis he takes abuse from liberal blogs, where he stands accused of "robotic flag-waving" (Daily Kos) and is dubbed "a self-appointed knight, coming to save us from all alleged war criminals" (American Prospect). For all that, he's never been allowed to vote in a U.S. presidential election.
"I can be drafted," he deadpans a little defensively. At 57, the Oxford grad with the brooding look of Richard Burton has spent nearly half his life in the United States on a green card (and has three American daughters to show for it). "This being the generous country that it is, I was quite prepared to go on as an Anglo-American. I don't particularly want to vote. But after September 11th, I thought I was cheating on my dues."
Mr. Hitchens quit a 20-year-running column with The Nation over the war. The liberal magazine, he says, became part of "the feedback loop of those who believe the Falwell-Robertson line, who believed that this was a judgment on the United States. The will to capitulation involved in that is very sinister to me." But his reputation as a contrarian has only grown since, as the libertarian, hawk, literary critic, and author of 16 books now produces prose at once gritty and laser-guided for Slate, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, and others. When he's not typing, he's talking, giving hundreds of speeches and interviews on national security more normally attributed to conservatives and a religious-right president.
Unlike other expat legends-rock stars Bono and Neil ("Shock & Awe") Young come to mind-who fashion themselves as U.S. foreign policy experts while keeping their citizenship and their vote elsewhere, Mr. Hitchens had a change of heart after terrorists attacked New York and Washington. He watched the Pentagon burn from the rooftop of his apartment in northern Virginia and later lost a mailman to anthrax. So one day this month he will walk into a government office just outside Washington, pledge his allegiance to the United States of America, and become a citizen.
"I realized that when I was reading arguments after 9/11 that said there was the American view and there was the European view-that sort of tripe-that as far as I could tell the American view is the one that I took. I felt a much stronger identification than I had before," Mr. Hitchens tells WORLD. "Before I was ready to curse alone. I was an outsider in both countries. But it felt like, feels like, is a gesture of solidarity."
Solidarity with what, exactly, in a country cleanly divided over war in Iraq and led by a president whose policy toward terrorism has dropped his poll numbers into the dustbin?
"It's fallen on the United States to be the country that resists the renewal of barbarism, of religious barbarism in the world," Mr. Hitchens answers. "It doesn't particularly want the job, it doesn't do it terribly well-and I think would have escaped it if it could-but there's something about the United States that makes it both hated and antagonistic to this barbarism." He adds, "If one wants to defend the deployment of forces of fellow citizens, one probably ought to be a fellow citizen."
As a journalist Mr. Hitchens extensively covered the Bosnian war and the Gulf War, yet describes 9/11 as "an exhilarating moment" because it crystallized his views. "Everything I hate is on one side, and everything I love is on the other. I'm never going to get bored with this."
What does he hate?
"Religion. I quite simply identify it with barbarism and backwardness and human stupidity. The methods of theocracy in action are a cult of death." The jihadists, he says, "say they love death more than we love life, and we have to prove that wrong. They're right on the first; they love murder, in which they exult, and suicide, in which they take pride." Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, he says, want to turn the Islamic world back to the seventh century and take the West with them. "Opposed to these and hated by them is scientific inquiry and philosophical inquiry, the emancipation of women, the secular state, and other very hard-won achievements of civilization. And it's good to be reminded they are fragile, they can be destroyed. We can be pushed back into the childhood of our species again."
Turning back clocks doesn't interest Mr. Hitchens, who began his political life as a member of the British Labor Party and joined a Marxist faction even before arriving at Oxford to push revolution in the turmoil of 1968. "The promises of the '60s came true in 1989-in exactly the way we would not have imagined," he notes. The Cold War and leftist politics left him drained, he says, by the mid-'70s, and by the fall of the Berlin Wall he was ready for something "kind of banal, like how to bring together a market economy and democratic society."
When the Cold War ended, he wanted to go back to writing about literature, not dreaming that the so-called peace dividend, by his calculation, was to last "only about 150 days." When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Slobodan Milosevic tried to annex all of Yugoslavia into a greater Serbia, Mr. Hitchens says, "I found myself in Sarajevo. And I found myself in northern Iraq in Kurdistan. Seeing people who'd been gassed, people who were still dying from Saddam's brutality . . . some I met were old comrades, but it was a pretty plain new enemy we had."
The reality that totalitarian dictatorships like those in Iraq and Serbia could continue into the post--Cold War era hit him hard. "You may think you can give up politics but you can't, it won't give you up. Politics will come and find you." And the trials, at the same time, of his close friend, author Salman Rushdie, made him aware of the creeping threat of jihadism.
Feb. 14, 1989, as Mr. Hitchens describes it, was a day that changed his life and moved him further from the leftist camp. That was the day Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran issued his now infamous fatwa against Mr. Rushdie for his depiction of Muhammad in his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. The ayatollah's edict included a $3 million bounty and ordered Mr. Rushdie's execution. It was only partially rescinded in 1998.
"It wouldn't have made any difference if he wasn't a friend, because here is the religious dictator of a foreign state offering money in his own name for the murder of a writer of fiction, who is not even an Iranian living in exile. This is the most frontal assault on all the values of free expression that make my life possible and my living possible."
Mr. Rushdie spent nearly a decade in hiding, and spent part of that time living with Mr. Hitchens in his Washington apartment. The author and his round-the-clock armed security holed up with Mr. Hitchens, his wife, and a new baby until New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd "annoyingly published" Mr. Rushdie's location, and he again had to take flight.
Mr. Hitchens soon after began receiving calls from counterterrorism officers at the State Department. They'd picked up intelligence from Tehran suggesting Mr. Hitchens' life, too, was in danger. He was encouraged to move and change his phone number, particularly after arranging a meeting between Mr. Rushdie and then-President Bill Clinton in late 1993. Mr. Clinton refused to have his picture taken with Mr. Rushdie, and later described it as "a surprise meeting" -one of many episodes prompting Mr. Hitchens to write a book about the Clintons in 1999, No One Left to Lie To.
Mr. Hitchens says of that time: "There was this other thing, a permanent silhouette below the horizon. I could feel the shadow of it but I couldn't measure it very well: Islamic totalitarianism."
But the British journalist didn't move and the threats haven't stopped. "It's a depressing week when I don't get them," he says. "No bravado here. I think of it as a compliment, and it's the least I can do considering the risks other people take. It's not guarding a polling station in Anbar Province in the hot sun. I'm doing what I think is the civic minimum. Who in the United States would not be willing to say, 'I wouldn't mind these people hating me personally?'"
He gets plenty of ongoing hate from the left as well. After he called Michigan history professor Juan Cole "a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community," Mr. Cole last month accused him of theft. Mr. Cole's statements at issue ("I object to the characterization of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having 'threatened to wipe Israel off the map'"), he said, were lifted from a closed online chat. Before it was over leftist blogs were so full of venom toward Mr. Hitchens, calling him a thief and "that British drunk," that blog-father Andrew Sullivan stepped in to mediate, mostly on Mr. Hitchens' side. Mr. Hitchens simply took his pack of Rothmans and his unapologetic taste for Johnnie Walker double blacks to the next speaking engagement. These days he is talking mostly about Iran and Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose statements he describes as "principally the ravings of an unwashed taxi driver."
Following his own standard on the civic minimum, however, aligns Mr. Hitchens with a president he says he doesn't particularly like. "He's not my type" says Mr. Hitchens, but he says that he "adores" first lady Laura Bush and does agree with Mr. Bush on key issues: He does not like abortion. "I'm a materialist and I'm a parent. I've looked at sonograms, and I don't know a lot of embryology but I know enough. The concept 'unborn child' seems to me to be a factual statement. . . . On that he [Bush] is not a fanatic, either." And while he describes himself as a Darwinist and an "orthodox Freudian," Mr. Hitchens thinks the president is right that "we should teach the argument" when it comes to intelligent design (a term he describes as "creationism, pure and simple").
Mr. Hitchens says he can overlook the president's religious views-"I don't mistake him for a fundamentalist, the Robertson kind, there's none of that stuff"-because he is "right on the main point. It is a war and we are in our life radically incompatible with totalitarianism, including the theocratic version. He understands that. And I can trust him while I sleep that he's not going to change his mind. This is not true of people who are supposedly more intelligent and better educated, like, for example, the senator from Massachusetts-either senator from Massachusetts-or many others."
And lest anyone doubt where he stands on religion: "I think religion is a deadly threat to the survival of the species and to the continued evolution of the brain." In debates he is quick to call himself an "anti-theist." Why not simply an atheist?
"An atheist can still say he wishes it was true. It would be nice if it was true. I can't see why it would be nice if it was true. I simply can't see that. To have pre-cradle to post-grave round-the-clock supervision and surveillance by someone with a very devious form of morality," he says, "who wants this to be true? I'm delighted that there's no reason to think that it's true. It's humanity's most obvious falsification."
In what for Mr. Hitchens is a rare moment of less-than-astute analysis, he says Jesus on the cross "is scapegoating that absolves one of all responsibility in return for the acceptance of the incredible and the undesirable. And then with the other shoe, the other hand, says if you don't believe it, then we have a real program of torture that will go on forever. It's disgusting. It was completely invented by very underdeveloped human beings," he says, astoundingly citing Augustine and Aquinas. "These are peasants; the sort of people we are up against now, with wild looks in their eyes and living in caves."
So where's the continued evolution of the brain in that?
"There is no evolution in that. My agreement with you, with them, is that they leave you alone. But they won't, they can't leave you alone. The other thing is that they want and need the world to come to an end. Eschatology is indivisible from this. They have to look forward to the destruction of the world. We're just marking time until the real stuff. There's a suicidal and destructive element in it, a wish for death.
"You can't wait for this life to be over. But I think it's all we've got."
In his own words
Challenged On professing Bible knowledge while eschewing biblical faith, Mr. Hitchens said, "I don't have the nostalgia for the lost period of faith. I'm glad it's over and my children won't have to know about it. Except from me."
WORLD: From you?
HITCHENS: I teach them this stuff and they don't know what I think.
WORLD: How do you teach them without them knowing what you think?
HITCHENS: You are not educated if you don't know the Bible. You can't read Shakespeare or Milton without it, even if there was nothing else of it. And with the schools now, that's what I hate about secular relativism. They're afraid of insurance liability. They don't even teach it as a document. They stay out of the whole thing to avoid controversy. So kids can't quote the King James Bible. That's terrible. And I quite understand Christian parents who want to protect their children from a nihilistic solution where there's no way of knowing what's been discussed.
WORLD: And I guess that's what I'm trying to understand about you, you say you have no nostalgia-
HITCHENS: I have none for myself. I doubt it but I'm very glad I was taught it. I was taught it as revealed truth.
WORLD: But doubting hasn't left you a relativist?
HITCHENS: I'm not a relativist. Most of the little boys and girls with whom I was taught in school aren't even agnostic or atheist; they're just totally indifferent toward religion. That's why I almost wish they would restore compulsory prayer in schools. It's the only thing-as in Europe-that leads to the mass production of atheism.
I think philosophy begins where religion ends. As with the discussion about Darwin, how are you going to teach it if you don't know what the other side is? I know the King James Bible pretty well. It's a fantastic document. I could not imagine my life without it. You couldn't read Paradise Lost. You couldn't read William Blake. Knowing about it is absolutely vital to me.
There was a very interesting dispute between [George] Orwell and [W.H.] Auden. Orwell when he saw the Spanish workers burning the churches because they were so fed up with the priests, he was fairly breezy about it. Auden, who was more pro-communist than Orwell, said he couldn't possibly bear to live in a country where there were no churches.
WORLD: Could you?
HITCHENS: No. There's very slight danger of it, anyway.