Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chris Hitchens in Beirut

When he visited Beirut last February, Christopher Hitchens almost did himself in. He was happily walking on the street, when he saw a swastika poster of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. He took it upon himself to deface it, and surely enough a party loyalist grabbed his arm and called a group of thugs. As Hitchens was pulled around towards the trunk of a car, as luck would have it the whole scene was happening in front of a chic cafe. The customers started shouting at the attackers. That scared them off for a fraction of a second, which was sufficient for Hitchens to step into a car, still with his life but with a fist in his face.

There is something to be said about Hitchens' courage to match his verbs by his deeds. One of his recurring obsessions has been to follow thoughts to their logical conclusion, wherever they may lead. If all of us were to do that, most assuredly the world would be a better place. One of Hitchens' fascinations has been with George Orwell, who went to fight for Republican Spain, but in due time had squared with the perils of the Comintern totalitarianism.

And it's not the first occasion Hitchens has had to reflect on the honest consequences of honorable thoughts. One of the most memorable pieces he's written about the Iraq was A Death in the Family. A young college-age reader of Hitchens named Mark Jennings Daily follows the writer's excitement about liberating Iraq, signs up for service, and is killed months later by an IED. Hitchens writes:

I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.? Over-dramatizing myself a bit in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking of William Butler Yeats, who was chilled to discover that the Irish rebels of 1916 had gone to their deaths quoting his play Cathleen ni Houlihan. He tried to cope with the disturbing idea in his poem "Man and the Echo":

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot? …
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?

Hitchens has sparred in the past with his old ideological friends regarding how to approach Islamic extremism. He's left the New Republic on the tail of a debate with Noam Chomsky, which I have not read, but should find fascinating.

Until I do that I just have one question: was Hitchens right to deface the disgusting sign in Beirut?

"And I'll take my answer off the air".