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Christopher Hitchens strikes again

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.  

  1. 1  ross  August 30, 2005, 2:38 pm 

    Very good – it’s amazing what people get away with, and what people will believe if it fits in with their worldview / prejudices.

    Any chance of an RSS feed? Please?

  2. 2  Steven  August 30, 2005, 7:54 pm 

    Glad you like it, thank you. I’ll look into doing the RSS thing when I have a moment (currently running the site on very simple blog sofware) – it’s a good idea.

  3. 3  Mata  November 28, 2005, 3:33 am 

    You might like to check out the blog software by WordPress

    It’s free, there are loads of templates, the setup is astonishingly easy, and it’s got RSS feeds built in. It also has an optional tool to give you quotes from ‘Hello Dolly’ on the top of your admin pages, which is nice. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing ways of importing other blog databases into it too, so you can probably get your current entries moved across automatically. As always, back up your databases before doing anything like this!

    On topic: it seems that I’m almost daily reminded of Socrates when he said ‘the only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance’. I’m not a big fan of Manicheaism (especially when used as justification of wars, etc.) but on these status attributes I think Socrates is absolutely right. Hitchens, and others like him, are adding to the ignorance of the world, and that just cannot be a useful thing.

  4. 4  Mata  December 8, 2005, 12:59 pm 

    From Harold Pinter’s Nobel prize for literature acceptance speech, Dec. 7 2005:

    ‘Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words “the American people” provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable.’

    I figured that it was quite appropriate!

  5. 5  Squeak  January 24, 2006, 5:30 am 

    Pinter . . . (pause) . . . is an old blowhard . . . (pause) . . . whose plays deserve all the credit heaped on them . . . (pause) . . . by cockney-eyed vulgarians whose spines should be chopped off.

    It is quite excrutiating to see Pinter splutter out the odd poem and Nobel Laureate speech these days. He’s really missing the point, one he made throughout the better part of his career: that innocuous-seeming words are not simple cushions to keep thought at bay, but hum with a tremendous buzz of hostility and violence, mostly audible to those against whom the words are discretely directed. Pinter was at his most brilliant when he knew how to shut up. Pause.

  6. 6  Steven Poole  January 24, 2006, 5:51 pm 

    I think any facile call for Pinter to ‘shut up’ rather unfortunately recalls Christopher Hitchens’s revolting comment in an op-ed screed after the Nobel:

    “Let us also hope for a long silence to descend upon the thuggish bigmouth who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage for far too long.”

    Hitchens is plainly wishing Pinter dead. This was called a “grand polemic” in the Guardian. Personally I don’t think it’s very civilized.

  7. 7  Squeak  January 24, 2006, 9:09 pm 

    Hm? Guilt by association? Hitchens does seem to be wishing Pinter dead, which is very unpleasant indeed. Squeak doesn’t want Pinter dead; Squeak is a fan.

    Please read the post again, and note that I did not say “when to shut up” but “how to shut up”. There is a difference. Need it be explained? “When to shut up” suggests that Pinter’s time is past, that he should get off the stage (or die, or something else that wouldn’t be very “civilized” to say out loud); “how to shut up”, however, was a direct allusion to Pinter’s brilliance with silences, short sentences, evocations of menance – you know, the usual praise in lauding how Pinter managed to create tensions, fears, anxieties on stage and, at the same time, write plays with rich social commentary. But now? His vitriol has been unchecked, his delivery uncontrolled – altogether, unworthy of a writer who knew how to shut up. As an example, I would direct you to “American Football” and Pinter’s own discussion of it on “” These are verbose table-banging diatribes about Pinter’s wretched anger, and how important to the whole wide world his own anger is; this poem and Pinter’s polemic say very little about American policy, American culture, or American use of language. It’s especially fun to watch Billington try to say Pinter is being really clever here.

    Facile calls for people to be “civilized”, however, are very worrying.

  8. 8  Steven Poole  January 24, 2006, 9:32 pm 

    Well, you might try reading my post again, where it is evident that I did not make a “call” for anyone to be civilized, but merely noted that Hitchens publically fantasizing about Pinter’s death is not very civilized. If you wish to disagree with this, perhaps by arguing that civilization is best served by the deaths of those who disagree with the benevolent philosopher king, you should do so.

    “Squeak”, who calls Pinter an “old blowhard”, who thinks his is delivery “uncontrolled” (of course it is not “uncontrolled”, it is just that Squeak finds the specific kind of control exerted distasteful), nevertheless claims to be a “fan” of Pinter. I suppose with fans like this, he hardly needs enemies.

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