Simply Evil

A decade after 9/11, it remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida.
By Christopher Hitchens

Updated Monday, Sept. 5, 2011, at 10:12 AM ET

Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York City. Click image to expand.The World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and “unbelievers,” and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.

To me, this remains the main point about al-Qaida and its surrogates. I do not believe, by stipulating it as the main point, that I try to oversimplify matters. I feel no need to show off or to think of something novel to say. Moreover, many of the attempts to introduce “complexity” into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions. These range from the irredeemably paranoid and contemptible efforts[MN1] to pin responsibility for the attacks onto the Bush administration or the Jews, to the sometimes wearisome but not necessarily untrue insistence that Islamic peoples have suffered oppression. (Even when formally true, the latter must simply not be used as nonsequitur special pleading for the use of random violence by self-appointed Muslims.)

Underlying these and other attempts to change the subject there was, and still is, a perverse desire to say that the 9/11 atrocities were in some way deserved, or made historically more explicable, by the many crimes of past American foreign policy. Either that, or—to recall the contemporary comments of the “Reverends” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—a punishment from heaven for American sinfulness. (The two ways of thinking, one of them ostensibly “left” and the other “right,” are in fact more or less identical.) That this was an assault upon our society, whatever its ostensible capitalist and militarist “targets,” was again thought too obvious a point for a clever person to make. It became increasingly obvious, though, with every successive nihilistic attack on London, Madrid, Istanbul, Baghdad, and Bali. There was always some “intellectual,” however, to argue in each case that the policy of Tony Blair, or George Bush, or the Spanish government, was the “root cause” of the broad-daylight slaughter of civilians. Responsibility, somehow, never lay squarely with the perpetrators.
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So, although the official tone of this month’s pious commemorations will stress the victims and their families (to the pathetically masochistic extent of continuing to forbid much of the graphic footage of the actual atrocities, lest “feelings” and susceptibilities be wounded), it is quite probable that those who accept the conventional “narrative” are, at least globally, in a minority. It is not only in the Muslim world that it is commonplace to hear that the events of 9/11 were part of a Jewish or U.S. government plot. And it is not only on the demented fringe that such fantasies circulate in “the West.” A book alleging that the Pentagon rocketed the Pentagon with a cruise missile—somehow managing to dispose of the craft and crew and passengers of the still-missing Flight 77, including my slight friend Barbara Olson—was a best-seller in France, while another book about another 9/11 conspiracy theory was published in the United States by the publishing arm of the Nation magazine. Westminster John Knox Press, a respected house long associated with American Presbyterianism, published Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, which asserted that the events of that day were planned in order to furnish a pretext for intervention in the Middle East. More explicitly on the Left, my old publishing house Verso—offshoot of the New Left Review—published an anthology of Osama Bin Laden’s sermonizing rants in which the editors compared the leader of al-Qaida explicitly, and in the context not unfavorably, to Che Guevara.

So, for me at any rate, the experience of engaging in the 9/11 politico-cultural wars was a vertiginous one in at least two ways. To begin with, I found myself for the first time in my life sharing the outlook of soldiers and cops, or at least of those soldiers and cops who had not (like George Tenet and most of the CIA) left us defenseless under open skies while well-known “no fly” names were allowed to pay cash for one-way tickets after having done perfunctory training at flight schools. My sympathies were wholeheartedly and unironically (and, I claim, rationally) with the forces of law and order. Second, I became heavily involved in defending my adopted country from an amazing campaign of defamation, in which large numbers of the intellectual class seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed. How much easier to maintain, as many did, that it was all an excuse to build a pipeline across Afghanistan (an option bizarrely neglected by American imperialism after the fall of communism in Kabul, when the wretched country could have been ours for the taking!).

My solidarity with soldiers, cops, and other “responders” didn’t make me a full convert to the police mentality. I was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the National Security Agency, for its practice of warrantless wiretapping. I found a way of having myself “waterboarded” by former professionals, in order to satisfy my readers that the process does indeed constitute torture. I have visited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, those two grotesque hellholes of American panic-reaction, and written very critically from both. And I was and remain unreconciled to the stupid, wasteful, oppressive collective punishment of Americans who try to use our civil aviation, or who want to be able to get into their own offices without showing ID to a guard who has no database against which to check it. But I had also seen Abu Ghraib shortly after it was first broken open in 2003, and could have no truck with the moral defectives who talked glibly as if that mini-Auschwitz and mass grave was no worse. When Amnesty International described Guantanamo as “the Gulag of our time,” I felt a collapse of seriousness that I have felt many times since.

One reason for opposing excesses and stupidities on “our” side (actually, why do I defensively lob in those quotation marks? Please consider them as optional) was my conviction that the defeat of Bin-Ladenism was ultimately certain. Al-Qaida demands the impossible—worldwide application of the most fanatical interpretation of sharia—and to forward the demand employs the most hysterically irrational means. (This combination, by the way, would make a reasonable definition of “terrorism.”) It follows that the resort to panicky or degrading tactics in order to combat terrorism is, as well as immoral, self-defeating.

Ten years ago I wrote to a despairing friend that a time would come when al-Qaida had been penetrated, when its own paranoia would devour it, when it had tried every tactic and failed to repeat its 9/11 coup, when it would fall victim to its own deluded worldview and—because it has no means of generating self-criticism—would begin to implode. The trove recovered from Bin Laden’s rather dismal Abbottabad hideaway appears to confirm that this fate has indeed, with much labor on the part of unsung heroes, begun to engulf al-Qaida. I take this as a part vindication of the superiority of “our” civilization, which is at least so constituted as to be able to learn from past mistakes, rather than remain a prisoner of “faith.”

The battle against casuistry and bad faith has also been worth fighting. So have many other struggles to assert the obvious. Contrary to the peddlers of shallow anti-Western self-hatred, the Muslim world did not adopt Bin-Ladenism as its shield against reality. Very much to the contrary, there turned out to be many millions of Arabs who have heretically and robustly preferred life over death. In many societies, al-Qaida defeated itself as well as underwent defeat.

In these cases, then, the problems did turn out to be more complicated than any “simple” solution the theocratic fanatics could propose. But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and “free speech fundamentalism.” The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of “ancient hatreds” but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called “evil.” And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.

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64 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:03:46

    Reply

  2. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:06:35

    Kim I was watching it live when it happened. When the second
    plane hit I said OMG neither building will be able to stand. But,
    the twits on CNN acted like they could put out the fires.

    Reply

  3. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:12:50

    I was working as an HVAC dispatcher and one of my techs called to tell me a plane hit the Trade Center. We were joking about what kind of fool couldn’t see such a huge building and he must have been drunk.

    Then the other one hit

    It was horrific and it still is

    Reply

  4. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:28:28

    Kim do you think waterboarding is torture?

    Reply

  5. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:31:45

    I have never seen it done but I believe any tool we can use on terrorists to get the to talk is a tool we should use.

    These creatures have not one hesitation to destroy us – pour water on their heads if it works

    Reply

  6. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:38:25

    The reason I ask is because the article you posted, the author said
    waterboarding was torture. I will tell you what torture is to me,
    Khalid Sheikh Mohammed saying that he had personally beheaded
    Daniel Pearl or drilling a hole in Dustin Hoffmans tooth in Marathon
    Man.

    Reply

  7. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 11:39:57

    I am not overly squeamish about causing a confessed killer discomfort in his or her day if it will bring about the arrest or execution of terrorists

    Reply

  8. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:21:03

    Kim I guess we will disagree on politics if I continue to post
    about politics. I thought you were a conservative. Christopher Hitchens
    is a socialist.

    Reply

  9. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:34:06

    I am a conservative. He can be what ever he wants to be – its still a good article

    Reply

    • Sherry
      Sep 05, 2011 @ 17:54:53

      I’ve always beleived that conservatives are more open minded than liberals. We know how to eat the meat and spit out the bones. Liberals can’t even see the meat because of the bones. Logical thinking is above their heads, too.

      Reply

  10. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:39:55

    Do you truely think Gov. Perry or Mitt Romney can beat Obama?

    Reply

  11. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:43:07

    I dislike Romney and Perry – well, I am not a huge fan but, yes – Perry can beat obama

    Reply

  12. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:52:26

    Kim I love talking to you. (Whoops Sherry might be lurking)
    But, I will throw it out there early, there are only three people
    in the US that can beat BHO.(Not counting Hillary Clinton)
    This is just my opinion and I will give them to you in order:
    1. Chris Christie
    2. Jeb Bush
    3. Bobby Jindal

    Reply

  13. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 12:55:45

    None of those 3 are running, for starters, at least not yet

    Bush might but he has no chance – the name alone will hold him back

    Chris Christie has flair and for the most part I like him but his stance on islam is too weak and his immigration policy sucks

    Jindal is a good, honest man but he is still working on LA – as he should be

    Reply

  14. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:04:25

    So you don’t want a border fence in Texas just like Gov. Perry?

    Reply

    • Kim
      Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:22:09

      A border fence makes no sense. Put our military there – bring them home from several useless and ridiculous wars
      I don’t know if Christie is ‘softer’ but I know we need someone harder !!

      Bush doesn’t stand a chance and I would lay money on it 😉

      I like Jindal but he isn’t the guy

      Reply

  15. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:16:03

    Gov. Perry is like Tiger Woods. When the hoes and strippers
    come out he is done.

    Reply

  16. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:24:59

    What about Bachmann? or Palin?

    Reply

    • Dawgbert
      Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:33:40

      Kim I love Bachmann and Palin. I got to meet Sarah Palin
      at a rally in Atlanta. She is really cool. But will US elect
      a woman? (I am not a sexist but even my sister said she
      wants a male in the WH.)

      Reply

  17. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:40:26

    If any woman can win it will be Palin

    Reply

  18. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:47:05

    Who does your Mom like?

    Reply

  19. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:53:00

    She was with me when we meet Sarah Palin. She is like
    my sister, she wants a male in the WH. She likes Chris
    Christie because she was born in RI and my dad grew
    up in NJ. They both graduated from Cornell.(Way before
    the liberalism set in) She hates Newt. LOL

    Reply

  20. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:54:46

    My mom is like me straight Republican.

    Reply

  21. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 13:59:38

    It will be interesting here in GA during the Rebublican
    Primary. They love Palin down here.

    Reply

  22. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:00:58

    Pffft on Newt

    Reply

  23. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:05:11

    O’Reilly carries these clowns on his back. FU to Karl Rove.

    Reply

  24. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:06:31

    Palin is loved or hated – seems there is no in between!!

    Reply

  25. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:14:27

    If Palin was to win the primary, the right VP pick could
    create a win.

    Reply

  26. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:23:21

    who – Rubio? West?

    Reply

  27. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:29:09

    You stole my thunder. It won’t happen but a GOP lock
    would be Colin Powell.

    Reply

  28. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 14:34:49

    No way!

    OMG no

    Reply

  29. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 17:01:40

    Reply

  30. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 17:21:47

    They are all getting desperate

    Reply

  31. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 17:26:23

    Quit hiding Sherry we know you are there.

    Reply

  32. Dawgbert
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 17:29:53

    How many time is Mumbles going to say ” She is safe and
    well taken care of.”

    Reply

  33. Kim
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 18:56:36

    Reply

  34. Sherry
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 19:27:04

    Muslims Against Crusades… they really need a history lesson! The Crusades were because of the abuses in Jerusalem against the Christians, Jews and Muslims! D’oh…

    Reply

    • Kim
      Sep 06, 2011 @ 07:30:32

      You can’t expect these inbred goat humpers to understand history – they are kept just above total illiteracy to be used as tools by their imams

      they are deliberately kept ignorant because they are easier to manipulate – something that is being emulated here in American schools

      Reply

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