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Hitchens at War

When Christopher Hitchens supports a Western war he usually concentrates his fire on the ‘enemy’. During the Falklands escapade he wasn’t bothered by the sinking of the Belgrano or other such trivia that ‘liberal twits’ were questioning. For him Galtieri was a fascist and Mrs Thatcher was right. During the Balkan wars he decided that the Serbs were the enemy, Milosevic was a fascist and NATO was right to wage war. He slipped up on the Gulf War, which he opposed despite the fact that Saddam, in the eyes of many who supported that war, was a fascist as well.

Perhaps Hitchens should re-think his position on that war, to make his overall posture slightly more consistent. Everyone would understand. What is odd about the current crisis is that his targets in this war seem to be Pilger, Chomsky, Finkelstein, Pinter, et al. This list too is incomplete. For some reason he excludes Susan Sontag whose excellent New Yorker piece warning against crude revenge has been reprinted all over the world. The position adopted by all those under attack is fairly straightforward. The terrorist attacks were appalling and unjustifiable, but to explain is not to justify. Explanations are desperately needed to avoid a repetition anywhere in the world.

To say that the Manhattan and Pentagon bombers are ‘fascists with an Islamic face’ can help whip up a war-frenzy, but it solves nothing, apart from being a wrong-headed analogy. Pre-war fascism was based on both mass and corporate support, which they retained till it became obvious that they were going to be defeated. Likewise the European ‘post’- fascists today: Haidar in Austria, Fini in Italy, Le Pen in France and their friends in Britain base themselves on a certain degree of popular support.

The groups that carried out the attack on the United States are reminiscent of another tradition. They are propagandists of the deed. They imagine that by sensational terrorist actions they can exert sufficient pressure to change the course of politics and history. It is pressure politics of the sort, which deliberately excludes any attempt to mobilize mass support. Someone once referred to them as ‘liberals with a bomb’. They believe that the spectacle of murder and mayhem can effect change and usually they’re wrong.

Who were they? How were they recruited? What made them decide to sacrifice their own lives and thousands of others? Here the answers are obvious. The question is not what Osama Bin Laden thinks of the state of the world. His former employers in the CIA are well versed as far as he concerned. The question is how he recruits middle-class graduates in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to his cause. For it is they and not the illiterate bearded fanatics in Afghanistan who carried out these monstrous actions. Here a quick viewing of Bin Laden’s video messages to his followers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt makes his appeal obvious. What he says (and I’ve seen one of them) is that the Gulf War was a crime against the people of Iraq. He and Hitchens agree on that. Secondly he denounces the continued occupation of Palestine and Western complicity with the suffering of the Palestinians. Hitchens would agree with that as well. Thirdly he denounces the corrupt and hypocritical Arab regimes and venal political leaders who refuse to re-distribute wealth.

He refers to them as bloodsuckers living off the oil that is a ‘common property’. Here, too, I think, Hitchens would be in agreement. Of course, Bin Laden’s solution is a nightmare Pax Talibana throughout the world of Islam, which few Muslims or non-Muslims want. But his appeal for educated young men in the Middle-East lies in what he demands and therefore our response must surely be to insist on political solutions that drain away support from terrorist groups. When the IRA attempted to blow up the British Cabinet in Brighton, the British state, horrified though it was, did not declare war on Ireland. In fact, soon afterwards it began to search for political solutions.

The same applies here even though the circumstances are much more horrific. Until the question of Palestine is resolved; until the bombing and sanctions against Iraq cease, there will be many willing recruits to carry out terrorist actions. Even Jack Straw understand this, which is why he spoke of Palestinian suffering as a cause of this disaster while on a recent trip to Teheran. To bomb a shattered and famished remnant of a Third World country is not an answer. It will do nothing to deter future recruits. The same applies here even though the circumstances are much more horrific.

Perhaps deep down Hitchens is aware of this fact, he doubts the efficacy of what the West is about to do, and, for that reason has turned his guns against the critics of the war. What is needed is a sober reflection on what really needs to be done. If Hitchens carries on in this vein, he’ll soon find himself addressing the same gatherings as his sparring partner, Henry Kissinger. CP

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Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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