Christopher Hitchens and the reasons for the World Trade Center attacksPosted: 23 January 2011
Wondering why 11 September 2001 happened
I adore Christopher Hitchens. He is so intelligent, so witty, and so delightfully arrogant. He always manages to find exactly the right way to express an idea, however difficult or new it may be. It is always a delight to listen to or read his work, no matter what the subject.
I also agree with Hitchens on the majority of issues. The fact that I disagree with him on the question of the reasons for the 11/9/01 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States and the lessons that can be learned from that only heightens my respect for him.
Hitchens sees the 110901 attacks as attacks on the pluralism and freedom of the USA, perhaps also on the permissiveness and tolerance of its society. Maybe he is right. Nobody outside of Al Qaeda can know for sure the real motive for the attacks. But on the basis of the evidence, it doesn’t seem very likely. After all, these were suicide attacks! Is it really plausible that someone, large numbers of someones in fact, would be prepared to commit suicide just to protest against the fact that people they did not know, in another country far away, lived in a way of which that they did not personally approve?
There are plenty of countries more secular and with more personal freedom and permissive sexual mores than the United States – France, Italy and Sweden for example. What makes the United States stand out from other secular Western countries in terms of annoying Moslems is its financial and military support for the state of Israel and various oppressive regimes in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, as well as its very significant military presence in Saudi Arabia – holiest of holy countries for the world’s Moslems.
If the Moslems believed that their holy land was being defiled by infidel American ‘invaders’, that their kinsmen in Palestine were being killed and oppressed by a regime supported by American arms, money and diplomacy, and that kinsmen in other Arab countries were being oppressed by authoritarian regimes effectively sponsored by the United States then, regardless of whether those beliefs are all well-founded, isn’t it more likely that that would be sufficient reason to push some of the more mercurial of the world’s Moslems to suicide bombing?
Hitchens says that, when the bombings happened, in the city where he lived, and which he loved, and in which personal friends of his were murdered, he was “not in the mood” to consider the arguments of those “on the left” who suggested that the bombings may be responses to foreign policy actions of the United States. He says he “took it personally”. That is entirely understandable. I expect that, in his shoes, I may well have done the same. There are some events whose effect is so powerful that hardly a person alive, be they ever so rational, can remain coolly rational when caught in their midst. To observe that Hitchens took the events personally, and consequently wittingly allowed his emotions to drive his subsequent actions and statements to some extent, is simply to observe that he is human. And, after all, it is partly his quirky, charming but flawed humanity that makes him so fascinating.
But validity of viewpoint and genuineness of emotion are not the same thing as accuracy of analysis. A bashing victim may be a crucial witness for the prosecution of the attacker, but is unlikely to be useful or appropriate as a jury member – for that or any other alleged assault – or as a member of a committee tasked with recommending ways to reduce street violence. For those tasks, people who are knowledgeable, judicious and not significantly swayed by emotion on the issue, will be most useful. In my opinion, Hitchens meets the first two criteria, but fails the third because of his personal involvement.
Hitchens has said that he didn’t feel like making excuses for those who had perpetrated the (September 2001) atrocities. Who would? What they did seems inexcusable. Arguments can be made about whether “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”, but I don’t think they help at all in the consideration of this issue. When a crime is committed, action needs to be taken to find those responsible, restrain them so they can commit no further such crimes, and punish them. But consideration should also be given to the conditions that made the crime possible. It may have no effect on the intensity of the search for the culprits or on the severity their punishment, but it could be very valuable in reducing the frequency of such crimes in future.
Imagine that a brutal sadistic serial killer has been caught. It is hard to imagine that any society would do anything other than incarcerate the criminal for the entire remainder of their life without the possibility of release, or execute them if the court is in a country where such things still occur. Imagine further that the killer is known to have lived all his life in a housing project plagued by unemployment and poverty, a hotbed for the abuse and trafficking of drugs and a place where domestic violence is almost the norm including regular sexual and physical abuse of children. The killer himself was regularly physically and sexually abused from early childhood, and became addicted to crack cocaine at the age of 14. Some might feel that these conditions are reason enough for a more lenient sentence. That will not happen because it simply would not be safe for society to allow the killer out on the loose, regardless of how sorry one might feel for him. But surely any reasonable observer would agree that, no matter what the punishment and anger against the killer, steps must be taken to change the circumstances that allowed someone to develop in such a way. Solutions must be sought to the poverty and unemployment, the violence and drug addiction, of that housing project. The solutions are unlikely to be easy, nor will they happen quickly. But if the problem is not acknowledged, if the attention given to the episode by society, through the media, is limited to fury against the killer, then the problem will never be solved, and it is inevitable that horrible crimes will continue to occur in that estate with depressing regularity.
Friends and family of the killer’s victims may find it very difficult, in many cases impossible, to get beyond a feeling of grief, rage and hatred. I certainly would. But those with a wider responsibility, and who are not so directly involved in the emotional turmoil of the situation, need to take a more dispassionate view if the future is to be any better. The local, state and federal government officials who have the power to make changes need to seek the best information and advice about the causes of such crimes, and how they can be removed or reduced.
That is what I think is needed for the United States. Many believed that, because the crimes were so cruel, vicious and outrageous, no thought should be given to anything but retribution. No consideration should be given to what might cause men (and they were men) to commit such crimes, because that might lead to understanding, and understanding might lead to forgiveness. But I don’t believe that “to understand all is to forgive all”. And I believe that it is precisely because the 11/9/01 crimes were so cruel, vicious and outrageous that it is crucial for us to examine the background and motivation for the crimes, in order that we may reduce the likelihood of their happening again.
Of course, studying the background and motivation for the attacks is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reducing the likelihood of future crimes. Just say there was widespread agreement that my suggested causes above (support for Israel and for Arab despots and US military bases in Saudi Arabia) were the true causes of the 11/9/01 attacks. It does not automatically follow that the US should cut all support for Israel and despotic Arab states and withdraw its entire military presence from Saudi Arabia. There will be many complex strategic, military, diplomatic, economic and political considerations to weigh up in any such decisions. But they cannot be weighed at all unless all important factors are considered, and surely the potential murder of 3,000 of one’s citizens in cold blood is a pretty important factor.
I know little about the military strategic balance in the Middle East, and in particular I don’t know why the US wants bases in Saudi Arabia. Maybe it’s to keep a threat near to Iran in case its nuclear program starts to look productive. But whatever the reason, unless the decision on whether to keep those bases is considered in light of the knowledge that the presence of those bases makes the US a greater target for terrorist attack, it has not been properly considered at all, and the politicians (Federal in this case) have done a disservice to their electors.
The question of support for Israel is particularly difficult for US politicians because of the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Currently, it is tantamount to electoral suicide in the United States for any Congressman or presidential hopeful to express reservations, however slight, about the US’s support for Israel, including the provision of arms. Such attitudes take a long time to change. But they will never change at all unless the problem is first acknowledged so that steps can be taken towards peace. It will take a brave American politician to start to try to persuade the public that their best interests are served by putting conditions on US support for Israel, to force Israel to remove illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land and halt the construction of new ones, and to genuinely negotiate with the Palestinians towards a peace deal. If a lasting peace could be achieved then that may well be the real mortal blow we would like to see against Al Qaeda. But such an agreement won’t occur as long as Israel perceives its support from the US to be unconditional, and that support won’t cease to be unconditional until US voters realise that giving such unconditional support makes them terrorist targets, and they won’t realise that until some courageous politician honestly sets out to explain it to them.
But let’s get back to Christopher Hitchens, where we started. I may not agree with him about the reasons for 11/9/01, but I do agree with him, mostly, about “Fascism with an Islamic Face”. At least, I agree that Islamic fundamentalism is really, really nasty and should be opposed as strenuously as possible. I don’t think it’s the greatest threat facing the world today (I’d save that honour for the twin calamities of climate change and overpopulation), but it’s pretty vile and Hitchens is absolutely right to fulminate against it. And he does that so much better than anyone else that we are really very lucky to have him on our side, even if he has a tiny, wee blind spot about US foreign policy.