Christopher Hitchens strikes again
August 30, 2005
Last week, Christopher Hitchens was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Repeating his justifications for the invasion of Iraq, he had this to say about Saddam Hussein’s pre-2003 links with terrorism:
The big fallacy is the people who say there wouldn’t be all these terrorists in Iraq if we hadn’t gone there – that’s capitulation. Zarqawi was there before we got there. Mr Yasin, who blew up the World Trade Center, was being sheltered there since 1993… The guy who hijacked the Achille Lauro, wheeled Mr Klinghoffer off the side of the boat, was also found hiding in Baghdad… I went to see Abu Nidal, I went to see Abu Nidal in Baghdad.
In a way, Hitchens does everyone a favour by offering the best case for Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorism. Let’s take his examples one by one . . .
1 Prior to the US invasion, al-Zarqawi had been operating in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. He was not there to be chums with the Baghdad government: he wanted to overthrow the hated unbeliever Saddam Hussein and install a theocratic regime instead. In the event, the US military accomplished this for him.
2 Abu Nidal died in August 2002, so that his presence could hardly justify an invasion in March 2003; and Hitchens himself had previously reported the rumour that Nidal had been killed on Hussein’s orders: the official explanation was that he had somehow managed to shoot himself several times in the head.
3 “The guy who hijacked the Achille Lauro” was Abu Abbas. His murder of Klinghoffer 20 years ago was an undoubted atrocity, but since 1996 he had not been involved in terrorism, instead advocating peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Abbas was captured by US forces in April 2003, and died in captivity, from “natural causes” according to the Pentagon, a year later.
4 The most interesting of Hitchens’s examples, though, is “Mr Yasin”. Abdul Rahman Yasin was one of the conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He had been questioned and released shortly afterwards by the FBI, after which he went to Iraq. What, precisely, does Hitchens mean when he says Yasin was being “sheltered” in Iraq? What, alternatively, did Hitchens mean when he wrote last year that the same Yasin was “a guest of the state”? As it happens, Yasin had since 1994 been imprisoned in an Iraqi jail: as reported by 60 Minutes, Saddam Hussein had made two offers to hand him over to the US, both of which were rejected. Suddenly, shortly after 9/11, the FBI put Yasin on its list of Most Wanted Terrorists. As reported by the New Yorker, Yasin as an example of Baghdad’s links to terrorism was a favourite talking point of Paul Wolfowitz.
In saying that Yasin was “sheltered” in or “a guest of” Iraq, Hitchens thus chooses his words very carefully. He is speaking to two audiences at once. The first audience knows the truth about Yasin: those people will smile at Hitchens’s cleverness, for it is not strictly inaccurate to say that a jailed man is “sheltered” (a prison provides protection from the elements) or even, ironically, a “guest”. Hitchens’s second audience is the great unwashed public, for whom he has such contempt that he thinks repeating such easily refutable “proofs” of Iraqi terrorism will suffice.
The philosopher Leo Strauss, among whose students was Wolfowitz himself, approved of Plato’s recommendation that rulers should tell “noble lies” to the population in order to justify policies. In this respect, journalists can help too.