Maybe it is just me, but Christopher Hitchens is at his very best when he is making sense. This is something he does, with his usual vim, in a recent article for Slate entitled "Simply Evil." In it, he makes short work of the kind of anti-Americanism that tried to turn 9/11 into something complex enough for an obfuscating intellectual to puzzle over. He nails those who tried to blame the attacks on "the Bush administration or the Jews." And for those who held up a simplistic tit-for-tat blowback explanation, Hitchens dutifully pulls their shirts over their heads and rolls down their socks.
And at the same time, Hitchens defends himself ably against charges that he must have turned into a rah-rah Americano by pointing out that he was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against the National Security Agency concerning warrantless wiretaps. He also arranged to have himself waterboarded in order to argue persuasively to his readers that such practices did indeed constitute torture. He wrote critically and honestly on the subjects of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and he has formally registered his contempt for the security theater fraud perpetrated, at an airport near you, by uniformed members of the TSA.
All this is Hitchens doing what Hitchens does best, and he does it for most of his article. And then, fulfilling the promise of the title ("Simply Evil"), he veers into incoherence at the very end when he only had about two column inches to go. It was like watching a bicycling Tour de Something rider, 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor, anticipate the finish line by raising both hands above his head, at which point he triumphantly bites it.
"The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called 'evil.'"
Evil? Since the 2009 publication of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens has spent a great deal of energy trying to persuade all of us that the idea of God is a false and pernicious one. But now he ups and calls these bad guys . . . evil. Given the premises, what might the definition of that be? Who determines what is evil and why? By what standard? But there may be a wiggle-room word in there. Hitchens only said they deserve to be called evil. But that generates the same questions. By whom? And whoever that person is, how did he wind up in charge of our moral lexicon? Was there an election? Did I miss a meeting? And what weight does being called evil have? When Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad pass into the same gray nothingness that will swallow the greatest altruists and the sweetest grandmas who ever lived, will those men then care that some people (back where consciousness is still going on) are calling them evil? Sticks and stones . . .
Evil? Imagine there's no heaven, Lennon urged us. It's easy if you try. No hell below us—nothing to kill or die for. If you say things like this, certain other things follow. Hitchens has been in the front ranks of the new militant atheists, and he has made a great show of being the kind of contrarian who is willing to say absolutely anything, provided it only be true. We have to grow up, Hitchens has said. We have to reject outmoded concepts. We have to get rid of the idea that there is a God in heaven, telling us the difference between right and wrong. But if these things be true, then there are other things that follow. For some reason, Hitchens is willing to affirm the premises but will not own any of the obvious conclusions. You cannot throw away your suitcase at the beginning of your journey, and then, as you are nearing the end of the trip, pull out all the things that you packed in it. There may be shrewd ways of avoiding baggage handling fees, but that's not one of them.
If there is no God, then Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have no God. But if they have no God, then it follows that Hitchens is not their god either. And if Hitchens is not their god, why should they care what he calls them? There is no god, and Hitchens is not his prophet.
Evil? Unless such men are treated as evil men, there is no justice. And if there is no actual justice (not paper justice, not name-calling justice, but actual justice), then there really is no such thing as evil. If there is no such thing as final justice, then how can we manage to define the concept of injustice?
Hitchens wants to call them evil after they are largely out of ear shot. Let us all agree to call Stalin evil. On Hitchens's account of things, does Stalin care? Hitchens may counter that he fully intends to fight them. He fully intends to treat them as evil, and his article was a call to arms. All right then. Is evil then determined by who wins that fight? Does this fight have a referee? Is there a rulebook? Who wrote it?
Overlooking the Obvious
Hitchens began his article by saying that one of the great lessons of geopolitical punditry, one that should be heeded more by public intellectuals, is the need to not overlook the obvious. But the concept of evil has more than one obvious characteristic. Hitchens rightly points out that its facticity is one of those characteristics. There is such a thing as evil, and there are people who are simply given over to it. Thus far we agree. But another obvious thing about evil is that it is the kind of thing that requires a grounded definition. It is the kind of assessment that requires backing. If someone identifies something as evil, the questions why? and who says? are entirely reasonable questions. And the answer has to consist of something more substantive than simply repeating the charge that it is evil.
Hitchens says that 9/11 was a "direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form." He goes on to say that we should prepare ourselves for the conflict—"Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie." His atheistic rhetoric is full of borrowed theistic words. He sounds like totalitarianism is objectively bad. His approach would seem to indicate that being vicious is a sin. The big lie would be a violation of the Ninth Commandment, of course, but I thought we had explained all that.
I for one am glad that Hitchens wants to repudiate the big lies. I am glad that he stands against vicious totalitarian ideas. Thus far I can applaud him. But in order to stand against anything, however obviously bad it is, you must have something to stand on.