Is Christopher Hitchens’s rhetorical combativeness a form of compensation for having never served in the military? And is this compensation leading him to overstate the threat posed to the West by Islamic fundamentalism?

A recent Guardian profile/interview with Christopher Hitchens elicited a curious line of armchair psychoanalysis that I found interesting:

In 2006, Hitchens’ wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is key to his psychology – I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”

Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: “Yeah. Yes. One of the things I’ve realised, writing the book [Hitchens's memoir, Hitch-22 ], is that it has to be true.”

Born in 1949, the second world war was “the entire subject of conversation” during Hitchens’ childhood. He was the eldest son of a naval officer – “the Commander” – a quietly conservative, blimpish character in the Denis Thatcher mould, who would often say that war was the one time in his life when he “knew what he was doing”.

Hmm. And might we add to this phallic compensation a desire for flight from the radical freedom entailed by Hitchens’s atheism? Yes, it appears, we might:

With hindsight, there was an early clue to his appetite for combat in the ferocity of Hitchens’ support for the Falklands Royal Naval task force, shared by few on the left. “I couldn’t possibly see the UK defeated by those insanitary riffraff!” he exclaims. “This was a diabolical liberty.” But Islamic fundamentalism presented a more promisingly meaty foe than a tinpot Argentine dictator, and ever since the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens says, “I knew there would be some huge intrusion into the heart of civilisation from barbarism.”

And so chief among Hitchens’ emotions by the end of the day on 11 September was “exhilaration. Because I thought, now we have a very clearly drawn confrontation between everything I hate and everything I love. There is something exhilarating about that. Because, OK, now I know what I’m doing.” Just as his father had felt during the second world war? “Yes, exactly,” he agrees.

This exchange raises an obvious question, and to the Guardian interviewer’s credit, it was asked: As a result of Hitchens’s projection of later-life machismo into the promotion of the Iraq War, and the need for some larger life direction external to his day-to-day atheist whims, might he be exaggerating fundamentalist Islam’s existential threat to the West? Here’s the Guardian’s set-up and Hitchens’s answer:

To say that Hitchens is stirred – even obsessed – by the question of courage would be to state the obvious. It seems therefore highly likely that his longing for the great Orwellian test – the momentous moral challenge to match the 1930s – might tempt him to overstate the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. “Do I ask myself,” he replies, “do I think our civilisation is superior to theirs? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s worth fighting for? Most certainly.”

That wasn’t really the question.

But it’s an important question, isn’t it? How many Western secularists might be inflating in their imaginations the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, or even fundamentalism generally, precisely because we find our unfocused secular freedom, well, intolerable? In other words, like religionists, do we atheists and agnostics also need an enemy?

As a secular person myself, I’m not trying to pick on Hitchens here. I’m being self-critical. Why is it that, when it comes to the Islamic fundamentalist issue, so many of us, otherwise liberal, otherwise secular, sound like Glenn Beck?

Is it because the threat is real, or are we in a fog of projection? Is Islamic fundamentalism truly an existential threat in the way that Hitler was an existential threat to Europe in the 1930s and early-40s, or is it a manageable nuisance? For myself, I’m not sure. I suppose that if a fundamentalist Muslim ever gets hold of a nuclear weapon, and uses it effectively on a Western city, that would seem to answer the question decisively.

But would it?

Because of such a terrorist incident, would the Western world really change its broadly secular direction, and convert to Islam? Obviously not. In fact, it would do the opposite. It would assert its values afresh. A nuclear incident in a Western city would be an enormous human tragedy, and it would be spectacularly disruptive economically, but Islam is never going to take over the West. It is neither an intellectually vital ideology, nor do Islamic countries have the wealth or military wherewithal to actually invade the West (as Hitler could invade the countries around Germany). 

And so the question deserves to be asked of Hitchens again someday: Is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism—and Islam generally—akin to the threat once posed by Hitler? And if not, why the persistently inflammatory rhetoric toward Islam per se, inflating its influence? Is there such a thing as a happy atheist without a bishop or imam to fight?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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