From the archive

7 May 2011: Christopher Hitchens’ last article for The Spectator

16 December 2011

A second excavation from our archives today, and another article by Christopher
Hitchens. It is, we now know, the last he would ever write for us: a Diary column dispatched from the States earlier this year on the occasion of Osama Bin Laden’s death.

I abhor the idea of taking a mobile-phone call at the dinner table but my friend Douglas Brinkley, eminent historian and editor (of Ronald Reagan and Hunter Thompson alike) has three small children and when his wife calls he rightly answers. So on Sunday night in Houston, Texas, at the home of the bountiful Michael and Nina Zilkha, we got an early notice that the President would soon be on the air. I have lived in Washington long enough to know that presidents do not break into weekend TV to bring bad news: only to react to very bad news, or to claim credit for something worthwhile. I can therefore claim to have guessed right away that either Osama bin Laden was in custody, or had achieved his goal of martyrdom.

I remained deep in the heart of Texas for the next two days, and didn’t come across any gung-ho celebrations. Had I been in DC, I would only have gone down to Lafayette Square out of curiosity. On screen, the event had a College Republican look to it: the only placard waved read ‘Bush/Cheney 2004’. The most striking thing was the age of the participants: most must have been in high school a decade ago. Perhaps the national disease of amnesia isn’t as prevalent as some people believe.

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It used to madden me, back in 2001, when craven commentators were so fond of saying that even if bin Laden was killed, many more jihadists would ‘spring up in his place’. This weak fatalism ignores many things, not least the effect of jihad in recruiting brave Americans to the side of resistance. I know several people who immediately gave up a great deal to join the armed services. Matt Pottinger, for example, finished watching the obscene video of the butchering of Daniel Pearl and left his job at the Wall Street Journal to join the Marines. He later helped sponsor
an all-female unit within the Corps, trained to work with Afghan women. He was radicalised: this process is not a one-way street. Look at the calibre and humour and bravery of the Seals, and ask yourself if the sadistic riff-raff of the suicide-murder faction have anything to compare with them.

Did we torture our way into bin Laden’s lair? The answer seems to be no. It was the assiduous cultivation of a single source that did the job. The defence of illegal methods of interrogation falls apart as soon as it is offered. Dick Cheney wrote in so many words that 9/11 found the United States bereft of any real intelligence on the not-so-new foe. Thus, torture is a prima-facie admission of failure, coupled with an attempt to make up the deficit by strong-arm tactics. Other strong objections to one side, this approach would lead very fast — did lead very fast — to a banana-republic intelligence system. Diminishing returns kick in with terrible speed. Hard work and high morale put an end to the life of Pakistan’s most famous legal immigrant.

As soon as I saw ‘Abbottabad’ on the captions, and heard its pronunciation mangled, I knew who this immigrant’s hosts had been. I’ve visited that charming region, where the tradition of the ‘hill station’ is lovingly kept up by the Pakistani army. If you follow the Murree Road you come to Muzzafarabad, which I seem to remember is one of the settings for Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. As so often, a slight knowledge of the imperial past is handy for analysing the modern world.

Would it be decent or prudent to publish the photographs of bin Laden’s cadaver? I have twice been in countries where people refused to believe that the tyrant was gone. In Romania in 1989 I helped hand out freshly printed Hungarian newspapers (this was in Transylvania province, celebrated for its supernatural potentates) that showed the corpses of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. The looks of relief, slowly replacing incredulity, were well worth seeing. In Iraq in 2003 — a nation where citizens had thought Saddam Hussein even knew what they were dreaming — I saw
Paul Wolfowitz briefly lost for words when he was asked at a public meeting to say where the Americans were hiding the fallen despot. Again, the later death-shots of Saddam, and of his ghastly progeny, had an almost exorcising effect. In the case of bin Laden, no such shock tactics seem necessary. There will in any case always be fanatics who maintain that the whole thing is a hoax. Some jihadist websites are already saying so. Let them by all means persist with this delusion, too.

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Show comments
  • Andy Carpark

    Two articles by Christopher Hitchens. Two mentions of a dinner party by line three.

    Crapulous, egomaniacal windbag. GR2BR.

  • Herbert Thornton

    AndyinBrum –

    Thanks for what must be the correct version – I’d been wondering why I was unable to see the point of the earlier version!

    Re Christopher Hitchens –

    I don’t pretend to know whether Christopher Hitchens ceased to exist or moved into another existence, but if it was the latter, I certainly cannot believe that he is in Hell.

    And if he is in Heaven and God has told him “Now here you are, see?” – I can certainly imagine that he made a perceptive and witty response.

    The best I can think of is – “What a pity Erica Blair isn’t here too” – but I am sure that Christopher’s response would have been a great deal better, and that he and God would have shared a darned good laugh.

  • Erica Blair

    ‘Again, the later death-shots of Saddam, and of his ghastly progeny, had an almost exorcising effect.’

    The insurgency sky-rocketed after these killings. Hitchens was truly the Baron of Bullshit.

  • AndyinBrum

    Nicholas Potter – I though the neutrino joke went “who’s there?” “Knock knock”

  • Amanda

    Flower for Hitchens.

  • Herbert Thornton

    To my mind, Christopher Hitchens’ best attribute (among many others) was that he never dissembled – he was utterly sincere and honest. That is a rare virtue.

    Whether or not you agreed with his conclusions, everything he wrote and said was and remains very much worthy of close attention.

    He would have no doubt have been appalled to think that somebody would say this about him – and would have had something devastating to say by way of response to it – but if anyone is looking for an argument for the existence of God, Christopher Hitchens’ existence seems (to me) to be one of the better arguments for it.

  • Nicholas Porter

    Although he would never have accepted Pascal’s Wager, if it turned out he should have done, there would have been no chance of him requieming in pacet. He’d have been too busy telling the good Lord that they couldn’t possibly be having this conversation. It’s like the neutrino joke; Neutrino; ‘Knock knock’. ‘Who’s there?’ …….

  • ‘mandy

    God rest an honest man.

  • Fitzmark2

    Christopher Hitchens was a wonderful, eloquent rationalist, who fought the good fight against dictators of all shades, especially religious bigots and god botherers. He will be sadly missed.

  • fergus pickering

    This is the first article of his I’ve actually seen lately.The man was a worthy polemicist, like his brother. Rest in Peace. How he would hate that.

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