Christopher Hitchens’ well-honed and well-worn blade has been put to many individuals throughout his extensive (though, now we must realize, always too short) career, and now one can say it has been put to no one more justified, at least in the popular mindset. While facing controversy that was his homestead in scorching, well-researched books against Mother Teresa among others, little of such would understandably be expected here. It cannot be an understatement to say that few individuals have shaped American culture and politics in the last fifty years, at least, as Osama bin Laden.
This compact e-book ‘single’, something we might call a long essay, does concise yet thorough work of grasping the presence of bin Laden both in his vile, formative work before September 11th as well as in the American zeitgeist after. While there was neither room nor need to delve into anything that might terribly surprise the average reader in this piece, I do think Hitchens succeeds in his usual brilliant way on two very key issues that Americans (and the rest of the world) should carefully bear in mind int he wake of bin Laden’s death, woven through as it is with cliches about chapters and eras coming to a close.
First, Hitchens quickly but surgically dismantles any notions, arguably fringe as they may be, that percolate (I’m tempted to say ‘infest) the left in particular from thinkers that like to make either clumsily imply or recklessly, thoughtlessly proclaim outright that bin Laden, in so many words, isn’t such a bad guy and is merely acting in justified, even admirable retaliation against the imperialistic bullying of the United States. One can hear the same disjointed harmonies at work in the words of Ron Paul and others, even within the last week, in regards to Iran in particular. Hitchens offers more of the few pages here than these notions deserve, and promptly reminds the reader of the reasoning behind bin Laden’s body of work–9/11 included–that show the ultimate desire of returning the region to an Islamic caliphate that then grows to encompass the world. No imperialism here, right? While he only very passingly gives nod to the very morally robust position of humanitarian intervention against accusations of imperialism, he’s written on it extensively elsewhere and anyone needing to guess at his thoughts on this facet of the argument would be insulting him.
The other key point, larger and more important, I would argue, is the overarching reminder that the war against terrorism–against totalarian rule, theocratic or otherwise–is quite genuinely and endless one, which might be something of a defeatist were it not so eminently (and imminently) true as well as being the most justified war there is, the one most worth fighting and so necessary (and available) to fight at every turn. This idea permeates this short text–that while perhaps we can agree a specific chapter has ended, one spectre of many put to dust, the book won’t ever end we cannot become complacent in fighting it. It feels too tempting to not let Hitchens speak for this point himself; he ends ‘The Enemy’ with the following:
“But it is in this struggle that we develop the muscles and sinews that enable us to defend civilization, and the moral courage to name it as something worth fighting for. As the cleansing ocean washes over bin Laden’s carcass, may the earth lie lightly on the countless graves of this he sentenced without compunction to be burned alive or dismembered in the street.”