So Hitchens, Havel and Kim are standing at the Pearly Gates …

This weekend’s haul by the Grim Reaper has been an impressive one. First Christopher Hitchens, then Vaclav Havel, now ding dong, Kim Jong Il is dead. Is there no God!!!? Hitchens will know by now but he ain’t telling.

The only time I saw Hitch was at Bookmarks where he took on the titans (or were they just tits?) of the SWP on the subject of NATO and former Yugoslavia. I disagreed with him but was shock ‘n’ awed by his bravura performance, standing on a tiny makeshift stage, drink in one hand, fag in the other, tying up the Greatest Minds of the Left like Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. Shame about Iraq and loving up to Bush, though.

He was a great wit, a beautiful youth and had massive style but, in the end, he was more an entertainer and a token radical for the Bush Right than a serious political analyst.

There were early signs that Hitchens was changing sides, or at least hedging his bets, such as in his support for the Falklands War and admiration for Thatcher. His tectonic rationalisation for siding with the new power in the world got under way once the forces of progress were in retreat after 9/11, famously cheerleading the massacre at Fallujah and laying into the Dixie Chicks for their rather mild statement of dissent days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The spirit of Hitchens’s hero Voltaire was in absentia, as was his great rhetorical style, when during the peak of their monstering — death threats, McCarthyite attacks in the right-wing media, blacklisting and careers almost demolished — he joined in the public baying for their blood by referring to them in Viz-talk as “fat sluts”, later correcting this to the “Fat Slags” of comic-book fame. So much for his gallant defence of the laydeez from the evil woman-hating Taliban.

Country music veteran Merle Haggard said of the episode:

I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.

We have burqas in the West — they’re just invisible.

“Water boarding” is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body. (A clause in the indemnification contract signed by Hitch)

Hitchens is often praised for his moral clarity despite some gobsmackingly blatant murkiness. What, for me, summed up the disjuncture between his sharp mind and his inability to empathise was his failure to grasp that waterboarding hurts, can cause brain damage and kills. He lacked the imagination to understand the terror and pain until it was actually done to him under controlled conditions by friendly practitioners in the US army. “You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning …” Good for him that he recanted his earlier position on this score in Vanity Fair but most of us don’t need first-hand experience of being half drowned to understand that this horror is torture.

The tragedy of Christopher Hitchens was that he absconded just as we needed him. The joy was that he was great entertainment as a live act — just don’t take him too seriously.

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