Christopher Hitchens’ obsession with Noam Chomsky will fascinate anyone with even a remote interest in psychology. The fixation almost has the quality of a jealous admirer racked by childhood insecurities. Amidst all the horror and bloodshed that envelopes the world, one wonders why Hitchens devotes his energies to denouncing a man whose syllogisms Hitchens once described as “train-wrecked.” After all, if Chomsky’s stupidities are as self-evident as Hitchens suggests, it would appear that Hitchens is insulting his readers by undertaking the task of refuting them in the first instance. Does not idiocy speak for itself? Perhaps Mr. Hitchens is riddled with guilt in his most private moments; how could the man who served as the most obnoxious propagandist for the moral catastrophe in Iraq not be consumed by self-hatred? Does Chomsky’s repeated insistence that the United States carried out an indefensible crime that erased hundred of thousands of Iraqi lives and permanently disfiguring millions more, constitute a painful reminder of Hitchens own moral failures? Does Hitchens worry that he will largely be remembered for the slew sophistries he spoke in defense of this century’s most grotesque and illegal war, and little else?
It appears that in an effort to cope with his own demons, Hitchens delights in heaping scorn upon those who refuse to submit to his imbecilities. Because Chomsky’s political influence is profound, and his credentials unimpeachable, Hitchens cannot ignore the MIT scholar, no matter how much he insists that Chomsky’s writings appeal only to the most naive among the human race. I suspect I am not alone in my belief that it requires considerable eye strain to go through Hitchens’ political writings and, with a machete, hack away at all of the irrelevancies that make an ugly mess of whatever issue he appears to be commenting on. It is no exaggeration to say that often as much 60 or 70 percent of his essays are filled with digressions of the most bizarre sort. Hitches knows that rhetorical chaos is highly effective means by which to avoid a disciplined discussion. His recent piece on Noam Chomsky in Slate Magazine constitutes a paradigmatic example of a writer so preoccupied with offering “eloquent” theater to his audience that basic standards of intellectual integrity are treated with contempt. It will be useful to say a few words (Chomsky’s article may be found here).
True to form, Hitchens’ piece is tastefully titled, “Chomsky’s Follies: The Professor’s pronouncements about Osama Bin Laden are stupid and ignorant.” He leads his essay by noting that “anybody” who has visited the Middle East has surely met an unruly Arab who exults in the September 11th massacre while simultaneously laying blame on the “Jews.” The comment, of course, is inserted for the express purpose of caricaturing Chomsky’s argument and confusing readers into believing that Chomsky subscribes to the fantastical lie that 9-11 was “justified.” Later, the irrelevancies begin to pile on with astonishing frequency as he discusses David Shayler (who the hell is that?), Michael Moore, Gore Vidal’s “croaking” insinuations, and again, yet another entire paragraph devoted to a lunatic fringe that believes 9-11 was a self-inflicted wound carried out by the Pentagon. Hitchens’ bouts with attention deficit disorder could not be more obvious. After all, doesn’t Hitchens’ title suggest that his task is to expose Chomsky’s follies? There is nothing offered by way of organized argument and or a desire to seriously engage the Professor, but rather the kind of cheep innuendo that has become Hitchens’ signature trait. What is incredible is that after pursuing these red herrings with great earnestness, Hitchens, from time-to-time, includes a caveat that Chomsky doesn’t really subscribe to these absurdities. He notes, for instance: “It’s no criticism of Chomsky to say that his analysis is inconsistent with that of other individuals and factions who essentially think that 9/11 was a hoax.” Hitchens has literally said nothing in the essay, so far as one can tell.
In the face of all this wreckage, however, a disciplined reader can perhaps extract at least one argument on behalf of Hitchens (even here the term “argument” is being employed in its most charitable sense). Hitchens appears to be horrified by Chomsky’s belief that due process, the rule of law, and elementary fairness should guide one’s moral principles rather than ugly appeals to nationalism. Notably, Hitchens ignores the bulk of Chomsky’s commentary and chooses, instead, to center his analysis on the one comment that was sure to arouse the most hysterical response, namely Chomsky’s claim that Bin Laden should have been brought before an international tribunal (a right afforded to the worst criminals in Nazi Germany), particularly if an armed commando of some 80 Navy Seals could have likely apprehended the suspect without incident, as many credible reports suggest.
Hitchens notes that the evidence against Bin Laden is built upon such incontrovertible foundations that, to even suggest that the US’ public pronouncements regarding OBL’s role in 9-11 should have been aired in court, with the criminal present, is sheer lunacy. He poses a string of rhetorical questions, asking whether the Professor has bothered reading the 9-11 Commission’s findings, the journalistic reporting of Peter Bergen, Lawrence Wright and others, and taken the time to watch videos in which Bin Laden purportedly appears with some of the 9-11 hijackers, all of which convincingly demonstrate OBL’s exact role in 9-11. Hitchens fails to comprehend that it is perfectly unnecessary to speculate about these matters (although I suspect that Chomsky intimately familiar with all of these evidences), as none of them lead to the conclusion he hopes for: namely that vigilante-style execution is justified.
Let us review the record in the present hour and then return to Hitchens main “thesis” to assess whether one can speak with any degree of confidence on matters at issue. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty is that there now exists a slew of narratives that offer a remarkably inconsistent picture of the entire Bin Laden affair. Restricting oneself only to the events of the past week, consider the following: how does one credibly reconcile the highly contradictory portraits painted by the US and Pakistani governments a mere 24 hours after the assassination, which are inconsistent both internally as well as vis-à-vis one another? Did US and Pakistani intelligence agencies have joint knowledge of OBL’s whereabouts months before the operation, as many reports suggest? If so, did the United States pre-empt Pakistan’s role in the assassination merely to monopolize on the political capital and international prestige that was guaranteed to inure? Was the notorious criminal armed, or shot in “cold blood,” as Alan Dershowitz suggested? Did OBL reside in Pakistan for years, or was his arrival far more recent, and on what basis can either claim be maintained beyond mere assertion? Did Pakistan provide the United States with permission to enter its inviolable territory in accord with a “hot pursuit” clause, or is this a figment of US imagination, as many Pakistan officials insist? If the United States had the opportunity to seize Bin Laden, and if he indeed remained the most formidable threat to US national security, why didn’t the United States interrogate him for months to extract what surely would have yielded excellent intelligence? Why was the suspect’s body dumped into the sea before being subjected to forensic testing, which would have resolved disputes regarding the circumstances under which he was shot? Was OBL still involved in orchestrating high-profile massacres, or had he been rendered operationally defunct and hence merely in survival mode? If it is the latter, did the Obama administration act in the “national security interests” of the United States by entering into the sovereign territory of a state equipped with the world’s fifth largest army and nuclear warheads to carry out an extra-judicial murder in the dead of night?
In the face of these and many other unanswered questions, and despite the United States’ established record of fabricating heroic military incidents out of whole cloth (i.e. the Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch affair, to name only the most recent), Hitchens thinks we can be confident about the US’s public pronouncements on Bin Laden. Is Hitchens serious, or has he taken comedy to another level? That is, simply on the narrow issue of the facts surrounding Bin Laden’s assassination, there is a shocking degree of confusion and contradiction at every turn; yet Hitchens insists that the public can speak with unwavering confidence about Bin Laden’s precise role in perpetrating the greatest massacre on American soil. Can he explain, in rational and organized way, why he believes this? Does Hitchens maintain that the American public should swallow, without a hint of suspicion, every press release that issues from the very government that lead the nation into the most embarrassing war in modern history? Even if one imputes the best of intentions to the US government, did not example of Iraq show that government “intelligence” is susceptible to error of the worst sort? How does he explain the Pentagon’s massive cover-up of the recent pre-mediated murders of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan, as reported by Rolling Stones Magazine? Should this incident inspire heightened confidence in the military apparatus? What about the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, even more confidence? Furthermore, would the investigative reporting and video footage Hitchens cites to cure any and all potential deficiencies in government intelligence? How would he deal with “mass of evidence” that undercuts the findings of the journalists he regards as authoritative?
In short, it is precisely because government intelligence is notoriously unreliable, and information in the public record so inconsistent, that a criminal trial should have been held to give the American people a full picture of Bin Laden’s culpability in the 9-11 horror. To raise these questions is not to nurture conspiracy theories, but merely to defend the rule of law and afford Americans and, indeed the world’s citizens, a complete unveiling of Bin Laden’s machinations. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that American citizens should maintain a healthy balance between denial and conspiracy theory on the one hand, and servile acceptance of the any government’s public pronouncements, be it Pakistan or the United States. I wonder if Mr. Hitchens would be willing to furnish his personal analysis of the evidence he knows so intimately so that it may be subjected to public scrutiny. His clumsiness is apparent when he writes, “However, it is remarkable that [Chomsky] should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court.” Can Hitchens corroborate the incredible claim that Chomsky believes the evidence “could not have been brought before court?” Why would the Professor argue in favor of an international criminal trial, if not for the express purpose of allowing evidence to be brought before a competent court?
Consider also the following: only hours after news of OBL’s death surfaced, Hitchens’ close friend, Salman Rushdie, called on the nations of the world to declare Pakistan and its 170 million inhabits a “terrorist state.” Note that Rushdie based his entire plea on the hollowest conjecture and a foundation of “facts” that, as noted above, are mired in inconsistency. It is only if one uncritically accepts every statement from the White House, and denies anything to the contrary, that Rushdie’s outrageous speculations can be sustained. Moreover, the implications of Rushdie’s public statement would surely have tragic consequences for the civilian population of Pakistan, as the example of Cuba and Iraq amply demonstrate. Upon declaring a Pakistan terrorist entity, the US would likely proceed in the usual manner: a sustained boycott and economic strangulation designed to punish, famish, and terrorize the people of Pakistan. Why did Hitchens allow Rushdie’s reckless stupidity to go uncontradicted and instead choose to focus on Chomsky’s rather banal comment about bringing Bin Laden before an international tribunal, much like his Nazi predecessors? Again, why the obsession with Noam Chomsky?
What I have presented here is only a sample of Hitchens silliness. At one point he states, without a hint of irony, that Chomsky still enjoys “some” reputation as a public scholar and intellectual. This, he says, about an international icon who was conferred MIT’s highest professorial honor, holds honorary degrees from every one of the world’s best universities, and has received numerous prestigious scientific prizes from every quarter of the world. I wonder if Hitchens can point to equivalent credentials—his scholarly contributions to Vanity Fair Magazine, perhaps?
A final word, if only for my own amusement: in the signature pose of a narcissist, Hitchens appears on the cover of his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, in ruffled trench coat with a cigarette dangling from his hand. Whether one should respond to such imagery with pity or laughter is not altogether clear. But what is beyond argument is that few public “intellectuals” today exhibit a self-absorption as profound and unjustified as Christopher Hitchens. Having read Hitchens for ten years, I have made many heroic attempts to give him the benefit of the doubt—perhaps there really is some hidden political genius that lies beyond the verbosity and hysterical ranting, I thought. But I’m afraid the poor fellow has again-and-again shown himself to be a model charlatan. His recent diatribe on Chomsky is but one example of the kind of excitability, hotheadedness, and utter lack of self-control that has earned Hitchens such impressive notoriety.